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

  • 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.

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    Zille based her last general election campaign on the message that the ANC betrayed Mandela's legacy. But how real is that inheritance? The central figure in ANC legend is Mandela, who reinvigorated the party in the 1940s and eventually led it to power in 1994. But as Mandela recounts in his autobiography, his transformation from rebel leader to global icon was, in part, a piece of imagemaking by the ANC. In 1980, after nearly four decades of fighting a regime that had not moved an inch, the party tried a new publicity strategy: personalizing its campaign with the slogan "Free Nelson Mandela." It was wildly effective. The slogan found its way onto T-shirts and posters around the world, even into a pop song. But as it tends to, such mythmaking also distorted reality, not least in regard to Mandela's failing marriage to Winnie. "She married a man who soon left her, that man became a myth, and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all," Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom.

    His remarkable ability to emerge from prison with forgiveness for his persecutors was a genuine wonder that averted a looming race war — and, for many, validated his myth. But if his reputation was merely enhanced, his party's was whitewashed. At the time that the ANC was becoming an international cause clbre, a 1984 internal party inquiry — the Stuart Commission — found that the ANC's training camps in Angola were "autocratic," "corrupt" and sadistic, run through a mix of torture, rape and execution. "There was a lot of corruption, a lot of thuggery," says Forde of the party's years in exile, pointing also to alliances with African leaders such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. "You see that coming to the fore again."

    In Bloemfontein, corruption and mythmaking have combined for the ANC's birthday party. When I eventually find Maphikela House — a grand red-brick place with two stories and a porch — the old lady who lives there directs me instead to a second building in another rundown neighborhood closer to town. In 1992, Mandela celebrated the ANC's 80th anniversary at Maphikela House. But in 2002, National Museum historian Hannes Haasbroek discovered that the house was built in 1926, 14 years after the ANC was formed, and the party's true birthplace was a former Wesleyan church hall a few miles away, since converted into an auto-body-repair shop. Unperturbed by this uprooting and relocating of its nativity fable, the ANC city authority promptly bought the bare-brick, wood-frame, tin-roof building and began fixing it up — at a total taxpayer cost of $4 million. Bloemfontein DA leader Roy Jankielsohn accuses the party of an "abuse of state resources." ANC spokesman Khoza denies corruption and insists the party is paying the bulk of the centenary costs. But he sees nothing wrong with using state money to preserve the party's history. "The ANC should be treated as part of our collective heritage as a nation," he says.

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