How the ANC Lost Its Way

The legendary liberation movement celebrates its centenary, but the party of Mandela has done far too little for a still divided South Africa

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Benedicte Kurzen for TIME

The ANC was born in the church hall to the right. Now the party is spending millions to renovate its history.

It has been exactly 99 years and 11 months since the world's most storied liberation movement, the African National Congress, was born, and I am looking for its birthplace. In Bloemfontein, the old Boer capital on South Africa's central prairie, a white tourist-information officer points me to a building on the edge of town called Maphikela House — after Thomas Maphikela, who built it and who helped found the ANC. "I've never been there myself," the information officer says. "It's a township." Then she pulls out a map and circles another part of town that I am to avoid. "Dangerous," she says. She means "black people."

On Jan. 8, thousands of ANC supporters and 46 heads of state descend on Bloemfontein to celebrate the party's centenary. I've come early to explore the origins of the organization that gave the world Nelson Mandela and laid the foundations of modern South Africa — and Africa — by inspiring the overthrow of centuries of colonialism and racist deprivation.

At least that's ANC legend. I'm in Bloemfontein to measure that against reality. Because while South Africa has seen steady economic growth in the 17 years after apartheid, it has also experienced an abiding racial divide. That partition is expressed in enduring prejudice on both sides and persistent economic segregation. Remarkably, income inequality rose after apartheid ended: redistribution programs have mainly benefited a politically connected elite. Most whites and a few blacks live in the first world. But out of a total population of 50 million, 8.7 million South Africans, most of them black, earn $1.25 or less a day. Millions live in the same township shacks, travel in the same crowded minibuses (called taxis in South Africa) and, if they have jobs, work in the same white-owned homes and businesses they did under apartheid — all while coping with some of the world's worst violent crime and its biggest HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The ANC blames apartheid's legacy and, as party spokesman Keith Khoza describes it, "the reluctance of business to come to the party." But 17 years is almost a generation. The government's failure to transform South Africa from a country of black and white into a "rainbow nation," in Archbishop Desmond Tutu's phrase, means black poverty is still the key political issue. A second, related one, however, is the ANC's dramatic loss of moral authority. At 93, Mandela is still among the most admired people on earth. But his party has become synonymous with failure — and not coincidentally, arrogance, infighting and corruption. Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and, at 80, still the nation's moral conscience, encapsulated South African political debate last year when he came out of retirement to give two speeches. In the first he asked whites to pay a wealth tax in recognition of their persistent advantage. In the second he called the ANC "worse than the apartheid government."

Africa is littered with liberation movements that, upon victory, forgot the people in whose name they fought. That era is coming to an end as the continent becomes more democratic and prosperous. The International Monetary Fund says seven of the world's 10 fastest growing economies are African, despite holdovers like Zimbabwe. Is South Africa, the continent's economic and political powerhouse, a gateway to this bright future or a window on its unhappy past?

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