Denis Farrell, File, Associated Press
JOHANNESBURG — Against all odds, the party of Nelson Mandela has transformed a nation where just 20 years ago black South Africans could not vote, and beaches and restaurants were reserved for whites only.
The venerated party once banned for decades under apartheid has won every national election since racist white rule ended in 1994, and President Jacob Zuma vows the party "will rule until Jesus comes."
Yet as the African National Congress marks its 100th anniversary this weekend with fanfare and dozens of visiting presidents, critics say the ANC has failed to unchain an impoverished majority still shackled by a white-dominated economy.
Unemployment hovers around 36 percent and soars to 70 percent among young people. Half of the country's population lives on just 8 percent of the national income, according to the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
South African political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi praises the ANC for developmental achievements "unprecedented anywhere in the world" in its 17 years of governing the country.
But he noted that many at the ANC festivities will have their joy marred by "a tinge of disappointment and even sadness" about weaknesses and failures.
The ANC's reputation is being tarnished by a never-ending deluge of corruption scandals, some involving politicians who sacrificed during the fight against apartheid and now feel entitled to luxury cars and financial payback.
It's created disillusionment, especially for those who volunteered to serve as freedom fighters at a time when many of the ANC's leaders were imprisoned for their activism.
Serame Mogale, who was only 14 when he became a guerrilla fighter for the ANC, recalled that the slogan in one Angolan training camp was "the pace of the slowest."
"We would run six hours nonstop with female comrades in front, from whom the whole company or platoon will take the pace," he recalls. "But today, the weakest is overtaken and left behind to tire and die."
Africa's oldest liberation movement is kicking off the festivities with a golf tournament — an event critics say shows how the grassroots-based movement has morphed into an elitist-run political party.
More than 100,000 people are expected for the ANC centenary festivities, including 46 heads of state and a dozen former presidents, the party says. Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu is coming, though it's unclear whether Mandela will make an appearance.
The 93-year-old icon's public appearances have become increasingly rare, though he did attend the closing ceremony of the World Cup in 2010. He also made a surprise appearance at a campaign rally ahead of the 2009 election, when the ANC faced unprecedented competition from a breakaway party.
"I would be nothing without the ANC," Mandela said at a 2008 party rally marking his 90th birthday.
The political party representing South Africa's impoverished majority already has drawn criticism for spending 10 million rand (nearly $1.5 million) of public money to buy the church where it all began.
The Wesleyan church is the focus of this weekend's centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein, a city in the heart of the country. It was here that black activists and intellectuals founded the liberation movement that would help lead the decades-long struggle against racist rule.
Until just 20 years ago, blacks were evicted from their homes and herded into separate suburbs, forced to work under slave-like conditions on mines and farms. Families were separated under legalized race discrimination so that white entrepreneurs could take advantage of poorly paid black laborers.
The best parks, beaches and restaurants were reserved for the white minority, with signs in Afrikaans saying "Nie Blankies" — Whites Only. Some shops would only serve blacks through a hole in the wall.
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