- - Thursday, January 5, 2012

BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA More than 100,000 people are expected to attend celebrations this weekend in this normally sleepy town, where the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), was formed in a church hall 100 years ago Sunday.

Once banned by a minority-white government, the party has presided over South Africa since its venerable leader, Nelson Mandela, became the country’s first black president in 1994, democratically elected after decades of opposing the systematic racial discrimination known as apartheid.

But the centenary comes at a time when the ANC is divided over issues of power and policy, besmirched by corruption scandals and criticized for failing to lift the country’s black majority out of poverty.

South African President Jacob Zuma will greet and host VIPs, including 42 heads of state and government from around the world.

“They are coming to South Africa to congratulate, not just the ruling party, but all South Africans,” Mr. Zuma said this week, adding that the event falls in line with his party’s commitment to “reconciliation and nation-building.”

Ailing at 93, Mr. Mandela is not expected to attend any of the events. He has moved to his childhood home in the Eastern Cape, more than 500 miles south of Johannesburg, where he had been based since his release from prison in 1990.

More than 17 years after coming to power, the ANC still has much to achieve in this diverse nation of more than 49 million people. About 50 percent of the people live below the poverty line, and the overall unemployment rate stands at 25 percent but tops 50 percent among young people. South Africa’s crime rate is among the highest in the world.

Meanwhile, the ANC’s membership is divided between Mr. Zuma’s call for maintaining a free-market democracy and those calling for the nationalization of mines and private property without compensation, such as youth leader Julius Malema.

Mr. Malema, 31, has been suspended from the party for his verbal attacks on its leadership, including Mr. Zuma, 68. The youth leader will address young people at unofficial rallies during the festivities.

Polls by TNS Global Market Research, which conducts voter surveys in the U.S. and Europe, reveal limited support for Mr. Malema, even among black youths. However, the surveys show that poverty and unemployment are the two key issues among voters.

What’s more, the ANC in recent years has been plagued with scandal, including the misuse of parliamentary allowances and allegations that state tenders were awarded to ministers and their families.

An investigation is continuing in a $3.6 billion weapons deal to restock the South African defense force in which several figures close to Mr. Zuma are suspected to have taken kickbacks.

Nonetheless, the ANC is preparing a grand celebration, although Mr. Zuma has not explained how the festivities will be funded.

More than $1.2 million of taxpayer money has been used to buy the church where the party’s original meeting took place, and hundreds of police and soldiers have been brought in to secure the town.

By Thursday, accommodation and parking in Bloemfontein were in short supply. The town is not on the tourist route and has few claims to fame, aside from being the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Some of the ANC’s historical friends and supporters will not share in the celebration:

• Cuban leader Fidel Castro is too frail to travel.

• Moammar Gadhafi, who backed the party in exile and allowed it to train guerrillas in Libya to fight the apartheid regime, was overthrown and killed by his own people in October.

• The Soviet Union, which largely armed the ANC in exile, no longer exists.

Despite such links, the party has given South Africa a democratic constitution and a degree of freedom for all races that was unknown under white rule.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria told The Washington Times that no official U.S. delegation will be present because “this is a party political event.” However, U.S. Ambassador Donald Gips will attend, even though he is on vacation.

In a country where more than half of those younger than 25 have no work, there is unlikely to be much interest in this weekend’s events.

“It is not our party,” said Billy Mafokeng, 20, who works as an unpaid security guard at the parking lot next to a local store recently taken over by Wal-Mart. “I finished high school two years ago and I live on tips.”

Mr. Mafokeng noted the number of luxury autos as ANC delegates and VIPs arrived in Bloemfontein.

“They are coming to celebrate, but when they leave, people like me will still have nothing,” he said.

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