African National Congress (ANC), South African political party, and black nationalist organization. Founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress, it had as its main goal the maintenance of voting rights for Coloureds (persons of mixed race) and black Africans in Cape Province. It was renamed the African National Congress in 1923. From the 1940s it spearheaded the fight to eliminate apartheid, the official South African policy of racial separation and discrimination. The ANC was banned from 1960 to 1990 by the white South African government; during these three decades, it operated underground and outside South African territory.
The ban was lifted in 1990, and Nelson Mandela, the president of the ANC, was elected in 1994 to head South Africa’s first multiethnic government. In the late 1920s, the ANC’s leaders split over the issue of cooperation with the Communist Party (founded in 1921), and the ensuing victory of the conservatives left the party small and disorganized through the 1930s. In the 1940s, however, the ANC revived under younger leaders who pressed for a more militant stance against segregation in South Africa. The ANC Youth League, founded in 1944, attracted such figures as Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Mandela, who galvanized the movement and challenged moderate leadership.
Under the presidency of Albert Luthuli, the ANC after 1952 began sponsoring nonviolent protests, strikes, boycotts, and marches against the apartheid policies that had been introduced by the National Party government that came to power in 1948. Party membership grew rapidly. A campaign against the pass laws (blacks were required to carry passes indicating their employment status) and other government policies culminated in the Defiance Campaign of 1952. In the process ANC leaders became a target of police harassment: in 1956 many of its leaders were arrested and charged with treason (known as the Treason Trial, 1956–59).
In 1960 the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), which had broken away from the ANC in 1959, organized massive demonstrations against the passed laws during which police killed 69 unarmed demonstrators at Sharpeville (south of Johannesburg). At this point, the National Party banned, or outlawed, both the ANC and the PAC. Denied legal avenues for political change, the ANC first turned to sabotage and then began to organize outside of South Africa for guerrilla warfare. In 1961 an ANC military organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), with Mandela as its head, was formed to carry out acts of sabotage as part of its campaign against apartheid. Mandela and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 (the Rivonia Trial).
Although the ANC’s campaign of guerrilla warfare was basically ineffective because of stringent South African internal security measures, surviving ANC cadres kept the organization alive in Tanzania and Zambia under Tambo’s leadership. The ANC began to revive inside South Africa toward the end of the 1970s, following the Soweto uprising in 1976, when the police and army killed more than 600 people, many of them children. About 1980 the banned black, green, and gold tricolor flag of the ANC began to be seen inside South Africa, and the country descended into a virtual civil war during the 1980s. The administration of F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC in 1990, and its leaders were released from prison or allowed to return to South Africa and conduct peaceful political activities.
Nelson Mandela, the most important of the ANC’s leaders, succeeded Oliver Tambo as president in 1991. Mandela led the ANC in negotiations (1992–93) with the government over the transition to a government elected by universal suffrage. In April 1994 the party swept to power in the country’s first such election, winning more than 60 percent of the vote for seats in the new National Assembly. Mandela, who headed a government of national unity, was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president on May 10, 1994.
After the withdrawal of the National Party from the government in 1996, the ANC entered into an alliance with its previous rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party, led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Mandela stepped down as ANC president in 1997, and in June 1999 his successor, Thabo Mbeki, became the second black president of South Africa. The party celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2002 and continued its domination of South African politics. Signs of dissent began to appear within the ANC leading up to the party’s 2007 national conference, where the next president of the ANC—and, most likely, the next president of the country—was to be selected. Although Mbeki was barred by South Africa’s constitution from serving a third term as president of the country, securing a third term as party president would have guaranteed him considerable influence in choosing the country’s next president in 2009.
His bid for leadership of the party was challenged by Jacob Zuma, the former deputy president whom he had dismissed in 2005 amid charges of corruption; the next year Zuma also stood trial for an unrelated charge of rape. He was acquitted of rape in May 2006, and the corruption charges were dropped later that year. Despite repeated allegations of wrongdoing—which his supporters claimed were politically motivated—, Zuma remained a popular figure within the ANC and, in what was one of the most contentious leadership battles in the party’s history, was selected over Mbeki in December 2007 to be party president. The animosity between the two camps continued to escalate in the next year and came to a head in the fall. In September 2008, following an allegation by a High Court judge that there had been high-level political interference in Zuma’s prosecution on corruption charges, the Zuma-led ANC asked Mbeki to resign from the South African presidency. Mbeki did so, reluctantly. The request for Mbeki’s resignation angered part of the ANC membership base, and several high-ranking ANC officials resigned from their government positions in protest.
Another source of tension within the party was Zuma’s close ties to the South African Communist Party and to the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Although both organizations had long been allies of the ANC, there was a growing concern among many ANC members that those groups were exerting too much influence on the ANC under Zuma’s leadership.
The discord in the ANC proved to be too great to overcome. High-ranking members and Mbeki supporters Mbhazima Shilowa, Mluleki George, and Mosiuoa Lekota broke away from the ANC and established a new party, the Congress of the People (COPE). The new party, which pledged to reach out to minorities and women, was officially launched in December 2008 and attracted members from the ANC as well as other organizations. Despite the challenge from COPE and other parties, the ANC was victorious in the 2009 general election, finishing far ahead of its competitors, with almost 66 percent of the national vote. The party maintained control of all provinces except the Western Cape, which was won by the Democratic Alliance.
As the ANC’s 2012 national conference grew near, signs of discontent within the party were evident, partly because of corruption scandals plaguing Zuma and the ANC-led government, as well as dissatisfaction with the general pace of progress being made in the country. Zuma, however, still appeared to have a majority of support. At the last minute, he was challenged by Kgalema Motlanthe—the current deputy president of the party as well as of the country—for the party presidency, but Zuma handily defeated him.
In the 2014 elections, the ANC’s status as the governing party was secured for another five years when the party won about 62 percent of the national vote. At the provincial level, it remained the dominant party in all provinces except the Western Cape. The success of the party came even though its membership base had seen erosion from dissatisfaction with the performance of the ANC-led government and by other parties gaining in popularity. One such party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, was founded in 2013 by Julius Malema, the fiery former ANC Youth League leader who had been expelled from the ANC in 2012.
The ANC saw its worst performance yet in the 2016 municipal elections. It lost control of key urban areas and, for the first time since the ANC took power in 1994, won less than 60 percent of the total vote. The party’s loss of support was widely attributed to the electorate’s dissatisfaction with how the ANC-led governments at the municipal and national levels were handling the economy and delivery of services, as well as frustration with the persistent corruption and scandals associated with Zuma and the ANC.
Another closely fought battle for the party’s presidency played out at the ANC’s national conference in December 2017, with the polarization of Zuma’s supporters and critics at the fore. The two front-runner candidates were Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a physician, veteran politician, and former chairperson of the African Union Commission who also happened to be the president’s former wife, and Cyril Ramaphosa, a successful businessman and party stalwart who served as deputy president of both the ANC and the country. Dlamini-Zuma had the backing of Zuma and his supporters as well as party members drawn to her promise to tackle the racial inequality that still existed in the country. Ramaphosa, meanwhile, had the support of those believing that he would be the more business-friendly leader of the two as well as those who had been most vocal in criticizing the scandals that surrounded Zuma and thus supported Ramaphosa’s promise to fight corruption. Ramaphosa was narrowly elected party president.
Ramaphosa’s victory further weakened Zuma’s standing in the party, as did a December 2017 court ruling that held that the National Assembly had failed to fulfill its obligation to hold Zuma accountable for his actions as they pertained to the Nkandla scandal—which involved extensive upgrades made to Zuma’s home in Nkandla, ostensibly for security reasons, that were paid for by the state and the legal fallout from his initial disregard of a recommendation that he repay the government for a portion of the upgrades that were deemed unrelated to matters of security.
Both events increased the likelihood that the ANC would pressure Zuma to step down as president prior to the 2019 elections in order to stem the damage to the party from the allegations of scandal and corruption that had swirled around him for so long. In early 2018 ANC officials engaged in several meetings and negotiation sessions regarding Zuma’s remaining time as president. The situation peaked on February 13, 2018, when the ANC announced that it had decided to recall Zuma from the presidency. The recall, however, did not legally compel Zuma to step down, so the party had to wait for him to offer his resignation. Zuma acquiesced, albeit somewhat defiantly, and offered his resignation the next day. He was succeeded as president of the country by Ramaphosa.