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Joy and sadness on centenary of Nelson Mandela's political party

Tens of thousands revel in the 100th birthday of the African National Congress, though many South Africans say the party has not delivered on its promises since taking power in 1994.

Jacob Zuma, the South African president, waves to crowds celebrating the centenary of the ruling ANC party in Bloemfontein.
Jacob Zuma, the South African president, waves to crowds celebrating the centenary of the ruling ANC party in Bloemfontein.

BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA // Tens of thousands of chanting and dancing revellers waved the green and gold colours of the African National Congress as Africa's oldest liberation movement celebrated its 100th anniversary yesterday, though many South Africans said the party has not delivered on its promises since taking power in 1994.

A dozen African leaders and more former heads of state along with African kings and chieftains attended a midnight ceremony where the president, Jacob Zuma, lit a flame, expected to stay alight the entire year, at the red brick, tin-roofed Wesleyan church where black intellectuals and activists founded the party in 1912.

Absent because of his frailty was Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president who is just six years younger than his movement. The world icon was jailed for 27 years by the racist white government and his organisation was declared a terrorist group by the US.

Joy at the ANC's leading role in ending the white minority rule in 1994 was tinged with sadness over its failure to bring a better life to most South Africans, and the corruption scandals that have embroiled its members in recent years.

"It means a lot to be alive when the ANC is celebrating 100 years of its existence," the mayor, Tulani Sebego of Bergville, said.

He said the party had gained strength along with challenges, "but it has managed to come through it to today, it is here, 100 years and I want to believe it will reach 200 years".

The stadium at Bloemfontein, upgraded to a 45,000-seater for the 2010 football World Cup, overflowed yesterday with crowds that spilled outside, dancing and singing under a blazing sun.

Dozens of buses lined up to drop off celebrants waiting for an afternoon address by Mr Zuma.

Mr Zuma has said that the ANC will rule "until Jesus comes" but the next few years will be critical ones for the party that has won a landslide victory in every election for the last 18 years.

The ANC describes itself as the home of the working class and the poor, but inequality has grown in recent years as a small black elite around the party has become multimillionaires flaunting lavish lifestyles.

Unemployment hovers around 36 per cent and soars to 70 per cent among young people. Half the country's population lives on just 8 per cent of the national income, according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

A warning sign came from the town of Clarens, where stone-throwing protesters smashed the windows of a bus that was to transport supporters to the centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein, 260 kilometres away.

The protesters, demanding ANC municipal leaders be fired for failing to deliver such basic services as tap water, stoned vehicles and blocked the road to Bloemfontein, Talk Radio 702 reported.

Such protests have become daily events across the country, where political liberation has not been matched by economic emancipation as Africa's largest economy remains in the control of the white minority.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in fighting apartheid and attended the celebrations, recently called for a tax on all whites who benefited from apartheid.

"Apartheid is not over," the American civil-rights leader, Jesse Jackson, said after the church ceremony. "The agricultural apartheid, the manufacturing apartheid, the banking apartheid, the shipping apartheid, the layers beneath the skin colour are now the next century's challenge."

The former Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, whose country was bombed by South African warplanes attacking ANC guerrilla training camps during the struggle for liberation, issued a warning at a banquet on Saturday night. "Comrade Zuma, you have more serious problems than any of us. You are faced with the land question. I want to remind the South African youth that two wrongs can never make a right," he said.

The ANC government has admitted its failure to return white-owned farmland to blacks - a key issue of the liberation struggle. In 1994 it set a goal of redistributing 30 per cent of agricultural land to blacks by 2014 - targeting a total of nearly 24.6 million hectares. Instead, it has bought only about 6 million hectares, of which a third has been resold by aspiring black farmers who failed to get enough support.