KLIPTOWN, SOUTH AFRICA // More than 50 years ago, thousands of South Africans gathered in Kliptown, on the edge of Soweto, to proclaim the creed of the struggle against apartheid, the Freedom Charter.
A lyrical, inspirational document, it declares that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people". The meeting was broken up by police on its second day, but not before the text had been read and adopted. In the early years of grand apartheid, the institutionalised racism that became a global byword for oppression, it said: "Our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality; our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities."
After the African National Congress-led defeat of apartheid and the introduction of democracy in 1994, much of its language was incorporated into South Africa's new constitution, and it remains a touchstone of the country's politics. But the unity of purpose that it symbolised is long gone, and the ANC is now riven by factionalism in the wake of the dismissal of Thabo Mbeki, the president, by the party leadership under Jacob Zuma. According to dissident ANC members who are preparing to launch a breakaway grouping, the organisation has abandoned the values that the Freedom Charter espouses. Meanwhile, with the two sections embarked on a brutal war of words, ordinary South Africans are increasingly disillusioned.
Nowadays, the site of the proclamation has been redeveloped as Freedom Square, a modernistic open space with a Holiday Inn hotel at one end and a monument to one side. An informal market occupies part of the area, where Leonard Motau, 45, scrapes a living selling bananas for a few cents. Asked if the ANC still embodied the spirit of the Freedom Charter, he paused. "That's a big question," he said after several seconds. He waited again, as if hesitating before committing political blasphemy. "I'm not sure. There's a lot of problems in the ANC," he went on. "They are fighting inside now."
Mr Motau is one of the millions of South Africans who remain deeply impoverished 14 years after the advent of majority rule. Even though millions of houses have been built under the government's Reconstruction and Development Programme, many people feel they have not benefited from the end of apartheid, and the sight of a small black minority making vast fortunes, coupled with regular allegations of corruption against ANC politicians, is stirring resentment.
"We are living in shacks," said Mr Motau, who shares his with 11 people. "This is the water, this," he said, pointing to a standpipe. "There's no improvement, no electricity. We use paraffin and paraffin is 10 rand [Dh3.6] a litre. "There's a shortage of delivery to the people." He contrasted the new generation of leaders with their elders. "Mandela suffered a lot, Mandela went to jail for 27 years. They are children, most of these people."
Even so, he doubted whether a new party would make a difference, or even secure large swathes of popular support, pointing out that it would be largely made up of politicians who were part of the previous government. "The people of South Africa are going to suffer I don't know until when." The putative leaders of the breakaway said they wanted to improve South Africans' quality of life but for now were focusing on "defence of our democracy". It is a laudable if somewhat nebulous concept that will need to be bolstered by an alternative policy platform if it is to have any hope of success, but the contest for the moral high ground is lending a vicious dimension to the conflict.
Mbhazima Shilowa, the former premier of Gauteng, the province that covers Johannesburg and is the economic heart of the country, this week resigned from the ANC to work as "volunteer in chief" for the convention that is expected to herald the launch of the new party. "I have taken this decision knowing full well that I will be vilified, insulted and rebuked by people who a few days earlier regarded me as one of them," he said.
It was a prophetic comment. Mr Shilowa was once the president of the transport union Satawu, and it condemned his move as "unprincipled and opportunistic", describing the breakaway as "the coalition of the bitter and angry directly as a result of losing power power mongers whose only interest now is to regain power at all costs by starting another political party. "This is the height of hypocrisy, smacks of opportunism and indicative of a comrade that should never have been trusted."
The allegation of deviation from the Freedom Charter, it said, was "false pretences" and that the dissidents were themselves no democrats, failing to accept the will of the majority within the ANC. The controversy is a spectacle that does not endear the party to the voters, who are due to go to the polls at a general election next year. For now it is impossible to predict the impact of the split on the ANC's fortunes at the ballot box, but it is clear that it is taking the threat seriously, deploying senior members of the leadership around the country to address provincial and regional bodies in attempts to contain the scale of the breakaway.
The party itself still enjoys enormous popular identification, and Mr Zuma himself warned those planning to leave: "It's cold out there if you are out of the ANC, very cold." But at the Soweto Golf Club, a preserve of those in the sprawling township who have become rich in recent years, many of the caddies said they would abandon the ANC to vote for opposition parties, and showed a scepticism far removed from the idealism of the Freedom Charter.
Msawalo Mudau, 18, said: "They are breaking up so they can make more money for them." email@example.com