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Four cooling towers, where FNB logos have made way for banners featuring the faces of ANC presidents, overshadow the little Wesleyan church where the ANC was founded 100 years ago.
The church is an unimposing building with a corrugated iron roof surrounded today by a semi-industrial area and a taxi rank. The dark brown building is substantially smaller than many of the ANC’s offices of today.
Founding president John Dube was there on January 8, 1912. Struggle stalwart OR Tambo, former president and global icon Nelson Mandela and President Jacob Zuma were not.
But Zuma leads the party as it celebrates its centenary with a symbol-rich return to its roots.
The image of his face was the first on one of the cooling towers, as men on ropes continued to scale the towering structures in a race to complete the work ahead of today.
The ANC centenary has meant work for about 50 to 60 men putting finishing touches to the building, a newly constructed kraal made from stones sourced from nearby mountains where a cow will be slaughtered later today, and the surrounding pavements.
There was no builders’ holiday in December for them.
For a group of shweshwe cloth-clad women, who cooked the construction workers’ food of meat and samp and umqombothi (traditional beer) in huge black pots over open fires, the multimillion-rand renovation has also meant work and money. They say they don’t know where their next job will come from.
At nearby Batho, the location to which the residents of Waaihoek were forcibly removed while the Wesleyan church remained, an open space is also being spruced up.
Today Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will open the centenary early-childhood development centre in that location which elsewhere is speckled with crumbling houses, zinc hokkies (huts) and a dirt-filled canal.
In the week in which matric results were released, one man asks whether the class of 2011 will be able to access funding to further their studies and get jobs.
“Tjoe, I’m not into politics. What does this (centenary) all mean? People are jobless,” he says, preferring not to give his name. “I’m excited, but what will there be afterwards?”
Yes, he says, it’s good the church will become a national monument and the centenary celebrations definitely are the talk of the town. It’s a sentiment echoed by a young cashier, who says he’s going straight from work to the stadium to “see what’s happening” tomorrow.
Ask just about anyone, including white residents of Mangaung, and it’s clear all know that the city of roses – and a not insubstantial number of memorials to the Boer War and two Boer republics – is the centre of attention this weekend.
A young man, who calls himself Sifiso, says he’ll be at the stadium. Not for the top-class entertainment, including some of South Africa’s top DJs and award-winning musicians, but to show his appreciation for what the ANC has done for black South Africans and the country as a whole.
“We must celebrate. All of us are not happy, but Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he says. “They didn’t come to Bloemfontein to give jobs. They didn’t say come here to get a job. That happens at other times. At election time, they talk about jobs.”
Not everyone agrees. One man, who just bought some flowers, simply shakes his head and says: “This is just a party for (Free State Premier Ace) Magashule and his friends.
“He must go! What has he done for us?”
The hawker smiles. “It’s going to be something (for) the people who are involved, the supporters, the comrades that stand by each other,” she says.
And for it to be “something” is exactly what the ANC hopes for.
The moment could not have come at a better time for the ruling party: it can push the spotlight away from factions and divisions in its ranks at national, provincial and local level and the tensions over what appears to be an almost permanent succession campaign.
There is widespread speculation that Zuma wants a second term in office. But the ANC Youth League, and its backers, has made no bones about wanting to replace Zuma with his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe with Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula.
But before the leadership battle erupts into the open once the process of nominations by branches is opened, the ruling party faces another tough meeting.
In less than six months, delegates will discuss policy proposals, including the call for the nationalisation of mines and the redistribution of land without compensation.
While the December national and elective conference has the final say, the strategic direction for the party and the country may well be laid down at the ANC June policy conference.
Cosatu has paid tribute to the ANC’s “triumph over the tribal divisions, regionalism and male chauvinism” to celebrate unity – even if “all of these divisive demons keep on rearing their ugly heads from time to time”.
But the trade union federation, whose leaders have repeatedly criticised tenderpreneurs who access state resources through political connections to create their wealth, also cautioned that the “triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality” remains.
With a tough year ahead, this weekend the focus is on the party, its history, achievements and future, not government.
Yet every now and again the confluence of party and state emerges: for example, the ANC has sent out aides-memoires, as per diplomatic protocol, to advise guests to bring umbrellas as it’s the rainy season, rather than just a memo or note.
And with 46 heads of state and several ex-presidents among the 6 000 guests, as well as other dignitaries representing eminent families and various global anti-apartheid organisations, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation and law enforcement services have been called to assist with protocol and security.
The ANC is determined to highlight its status as Africa’s oldest liberation movement and its role, not only in SA, but also in neighbouring states and other countries, whose citizens also fought and died in the anti-apartheid struggle.
For decades the glue that held together those who constitute the ANC – from workers, business owners, the middle class of teachers, nurses, lawyers and the unemployed – was the fight against apartheid and the dream of a democratically elected government, now realised.
Lamp-posts on all major routes in and out of Mangaung are decked out with “Thank you” banners honouring countries like Cuba, Mozambique, Zambia, Lesotho and Namibia. These banners alternate with the black, gold and green of the ANC and the “Unity in Diversity” motto of the centenary celebrations.
But there are no banners thanking the tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans who put their lives on the line, or lost them like Umkhonto weSizwe cadre Solomon Mahlangu, in the anti-apartheid Struggle.
It’s a sensitive point: ANC officials say the separate centenary celebrations throughout the year in each province can focus on events and people important to its history. The contribution of women, including the 1959 anti-pass march to Pretoria, and of youth will be honoured in August and June respectively.
Are the centenary celebrations a plaster on a festering wound of factionalism and what political commentators and others like Cosatu describe as political connectivity for personal gain?
According to ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete, everyone is too busy to talk divisions. And yes, everyone is pulling in the same direction, she says. There is simply no time to be divided as it’s all hands on deck for the celebrations.
Senior ANC members, including the president, his deputy and the party’s secretary-general, have been knocking on doors in various Free State towns, holding mini-rallies and addressing public meetings. So have the ANC women’s and youth leagues.
It’s part of the mobilisation campaign. After all, it will be ordinary ANC members and supporters who must fill the 100 000 seats in the stadium and overflow venues.
The majority of people will come from the Free State, and the Mangaung region specifically, although delegations from all other provinces are expected to arrive just before dawn tomorrow.
Political analysts and academics often point to the ANC’s ability to pull together the various strands of “the broad church”, as the party describes itself, at key moments in its life. And the ANC surely hopes these centenary celebrations will do just that.
At the heart of the symbolism is the centenary torch, which will cross the country over the course of the year. Zuma will light it at midnight tonight and it will make its way from the Wesleyan church to the Free State Stadium for tomorrow’s rally.
There, the president will formally hand it over to the Free State ANC leaders. They, in turn, under the gaze of national ANC leaders, will hand it over to the Western Cape, the next province to host national centenary celebrations, alongside its own programme.
The torch will then travel from province to province as the focus of the centenary moves around the country until it returns to the Free State ahead of the December national conference in Mangaung.
The journey is meant to replicate the travels of the founding fathers who spread “little fires” across the country after founding the SA Native National Congress.
Symbolism, says Mbete, speaks to people. Even if an elderly woman may not have understood every word of a speech, she would understand the symbolism.
Of course, by the 1940s, the youth league and its more aggressive approach was in place because, as Nelson Mandela later wrote, the young lions felt leaders were “a tired, unmilitant, privileged African elite more concerned with protecting their own rights than those of the masses”.
In today’s politics, however, the centenary torch is also a pregnant reminder of pulling together in one direction.
Years ago, former Free State premier Mosiuoa Lekota said Bloemfontein should be the country’s capital. It is easily defended and is the centre of the country geographically and historically, he insisted, even as his proposals were laughed off. This weekend Mangaung is indeed the capital of where it’s at.
But with the focus of the ANC’s centenary on its birthplace, it should also be recalled that the National Party was also born in the same city in 1914.
And to the same city it was that the New National Party returned to symbolically “bury” the Nats ahead of its merger with the ANC.
With the ANC’s centenary motto of unity in diversity, rejuvenation in its ranks, like the renovation of the Wesleyan church, must be at the top of the party’s mind.