Last week, on January 8th 2012, the African National Congress (ANC) celebrated 100 years of existence. I think a trip down history lane is in order.
After the defeat of Zulu, Xhosa, and other African kingdoms in the late 1800s-1900s in the hands of British colonizers, South Africans had to find a new way to fight off the oppressors. Thus, in 1911, Pixley ka Isaka Seme called on Africans to forget the differences of the past and unite together in one national organisation. He said: “We are one people. these divisions, these jealousies, are the cause of all our woes today.“ That national organization saw light on January 8th 1912, when chiefs, representatives of people’s and church organisations, and other prominent individuals gathered in Bloemfontein and formed the African National Congress. The ANC declared its aim to bring all Africans together as one people to defend their rights and freedoms. Its first elected president was John Dube.
The 1920s-1930s were marked by actions such as the 1919 campaign against passes by the Transvaal ANC; the militant strike by African mineworkers in 1920; and the social organization of Black workers… The ANC went through several stages, first, as a church-based lobbying force, a non-violent nationalist movement, and then, as part of an alliance with Indians, Coloureds, and progressive Whites, including Afrikaners and Communists.
The Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 where a group of 5000-7000 marched to protest against passes and were shot on by police forces showed the international community how ruthless the apartheid system was. Karen Allen of BBC news recalled the massacre with this chilling description: “Thousands of protesters had gathered in Sharpeville, just south of Johannesburg, to protest at the use of the infamous passbooks, or “dompas”, that every black South African was expected to carry and produce on demand. It governed a person’s movement, was a tool of harassment and was one of the most hated symbols of the apartheid state. Sixty-nine men, women and children were gunned down on that day, killed when police officers opened fire on the crowd. The police station – where they had gathered – is now a memorial to the dead.”
In 1961, the ANC took up arms against the South African White government. It morphed into a violent struggle of resistance and armed combat with Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) or Spear of the Nation, when the doors to non-violent change were brutally shut by white nationalists who built on British colonial racism to impose apartheid, a practice of physically relocating communities, regulating labour with passes and violent repression. During those years, not only did MK tried to make the country ungovernable to no avail (as they were no match to the repressive white supremacist government of South Africa), but many of its leaders were arrested like Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and Walter Sisulu, while others like Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo went into exile.
Although in exile, Oliver Tambo led the ANC, and used exile to internationalize the fight for freedom from apartheid. The ANC fought and raised awareness about the atrocities of apartheid. One easily remember Miriam Makeba’s speech at the United Nations imploring the world to intervene. The ANC made a lot of alliances with border states such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Zambia… many countries (Guinea, Zambia, Tanzania, Egypt, etc) in Africa also got involved in helping the South African brothers providing any help they could.
Inside South Africa, many top leaders such as Mandela were arrested and sent to the draconian Robben Island prison where they were expected to die. Many more were arrested and beaten by the police, while others such as Steve Biko were simply murdered. Thousands of lives were lost, families were torn apart, and many endured mental as well as physical torture. On June 16, 1976, the Soweto uprising (a march of about 20,000 students protesting against the Afrikaans Medium Decree which made Afrikaans a language of instruction in Black schools with equal weight as English 50-50) which was sanctioned in blood by police, led to the death of over 200-600 children, and over 1,000 wounded.
Many believe this to have been the real turning point to apartheid… since the international community applied further pressure and sanctions. The Pretoria government were also defeated in Angola by Cuban-African fighters, and thus had no other choice but to start the negotiation which led to Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders’ release from prison, and later to the first democratic elections of South Africa in 1994. These elections saw Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison, become the first democratically elected president of the rainbow nation on May 10th 1994. The ANC has been in power since then with Thabo Mbeki, and now Jacob Zuma…
The reason we are really celebrating the centenary of ANC is to commemorate the blood, the struggle, the strength, endurance, and the love of a people on its own land. As a political party and liberation organization, the ANC deserves great praise and acknowledgement for the defeat of apartheid South African government… but history should also remember the thousands of unsung heroes across the globe who also supported and fought for the eradication of apartheid. Truth be told… justice always prevail, even after 100 or 300 years! Now the ANC has to rise even higher and attain its true height as the people’s party!