JOHANNESBURG — Heading into its third year in power, the African National Congress still enjoys the support of a clear majority of South Africa's voters. And because its opposition is divided and marginalized, the ANC is sure to control the country well into the next century.
Most political parties would be delighted, but when President Nelson Mandela addressed the party's 85th anniversary celebration Jan. 12, there was little triumph in his speech. Instead, Mr. Mandela said the ANC had made "fundamental and serious" mistakes since it swept to power in April 1994.
Stephen Friedman, director of the Johannesburg-based Center for Policy Studies, sees the speech as an acknowledgement that, for all its strengths, the ANC is in danger of losing its way both ethically and politically.
There was, for instance, last year's political funding scandal, in which the president himself had to admit accepting campaign donations from controversial casino magnate Sol Kerzner, despite earlier denials by the ANC. Then there was the damaging saga in which the health minister was accused of misleading parliament over the irregular awarding of $3 million in state funds to "Sarafina 2," a musical intended to spread AIDS awareness.
It has also suffered from a series of internal disputes, most recently the removal of the Free State's Premier Patrick "Terror" Lekota. Widely perceived as an effective and clean leader, Mr. Lekota was forced to resign after he accused several subordinates of corruption. Rather than support Lekota, the ANC forced all parties in the dispute to resign.
Earlier in the year, the highly regarded Cyril Ramaphosa, once tipped as a successor to Mandela himself, stood down as party general secretary to take the helm of a high-powered black business consortium. At the time many observers speculated that Mr. Ramaphosa decided to leave politics because he had been sidelined by his rival, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, now seen as sure to succeed Mandela.
Mr. Mbeki, who already runs the ANC on Mandela's behalf, is widely regarded as an able but uninspiring politician. Many within the party blame him for a perceived drift away from the ANC's tradition of grass-roots consultation.
Ordinary supporters perceive their elected leaders as increasingly remote and self-serving. ANC members of parliament complain - off the record - that the leadership now gives them little or no opportunity to debate policy before it is adopted. Potential dissidents have been silenced with threats of disciplinary action.
Critics of the ANC - particularly the white right - try to use all this as evidence that South Africa is on its way to becoming just another post-colonial African state, plagued by inefficiency and corruption and stifled by a monolithic ruling party.
But other observers, such as Mr. Friedman, believe there is little danger of the ANC destroying South Africa's infant democracy. The ANC is still more of an alliance than a single party, and he says attempts to simply dictate policy would alienate key party support.
The ANC will need all its skill to resolve a number of contradictions in its own ranks. Chief among these is the smoldering conflict between the government's recently adopted economic blueprint - pro-growth, pro-investment, and wholeheartedly pro-market - and the left's desire for state intervention to tackle black unemployment running at up to 50 percent.
While the party is still forging ahead in some areas of social reform - for example, the provision of electricity, clean water, and health care for poor blacks - it has yet to deliver in key areas such as housing and education.
But Eve Thompson, Johannesburg director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies says the fledgling government deserves praise for its progress. "A liberation movement and a party of government are two very different things," she says. "I think the ANC is coming more and more to look like a party of government.... We have to remember that they came in to power with no experience."
Mandela has also praised his party. Democracy and human rights are being strengthened, he said at the party conference, and daily life is improving. "We are not always moving as fast as we would like. We have reverses and make mistakes. But everywhere there is now tangible evidence of a new South Africa in the making."