History won't be kind to ANC for failing to be selfless
It is sad for the ANC that it is having to celebrate its centenary year at such a low point in its history, and with one of the weakest leaders it has ever had at the helm. How do you savour such a brave record when the once-great movement is sliding ever deeper into corrupt ineptitude?
That birthday rally on Sunday was a marketer's dream - the sort of opportunity that comes around only every 100 years or so. Thabo Mbeki would have worked for weeks on the speech if, as clearly he had planned in 2007, he had been the party leader. It would have been complex, possibly controversial, but memorable.
The moment called for a South African equivalent of Abraham Lincoln's 272-word Gettysburg address - something majestic. Instead, what we got from President Jacob Zuma was nearly two hours of turgid committee speak.
"I am an African. I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land," then deputy president Thabo Mbeki said at the adoption of the Constitution Bill in parliament on May 8 1996.
What phrase from Sunday's speech will pupils learn to recite 10 or 20 years hence?
At least Zuma conceded that the party needed renewal and, in ironic contrast to his polygamy and his share in the ritual slaughter of a bull shortly before he spoke, he promised to modernise it.
History could have presented this moment to the ANC in a context of international peace and growth, but the background to the year-long battle for control of the party will be a global crisis that could unravel the structures of economic and political power that we know and set the world adrift in uncertainty.
We have no idea yet whether a stormy winter with no intervening summer will follow the Arab spring that has toppled so many leaders of the Middle East.
The Western powers - mainly the US, but with Britain still loyal to the cause - threaten to unleash another war for regime change. The target this time, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, just might have the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq's Saddam Hussein didn't.
The European Union is battling to rescue the euro, which, alongside the dollar and the yuan, is one of the three pillars of the international trade that keeps the world's billions - including the 60% of willing South Africans who do have a job - at work.
If the euro unravels, there will be little charity for the developing world and a reduced appetite for the raw commodities that are our stock in trade.
There is no sea of tranquillity for the ANC's centenary ship at home either. While Zuma and the political midgets who make up his crew chart a course for Mangaung in December, a tsunami of disappointment threatens to swamp South Africa.
The gap between the lived reality of the townships and the widely reported reality of life at the top of the political food chain widens by the day, levered further by the largely white-owned and run corporations that co-opt black partners on the promise of shared spoils.
New voters in the 2014 national election really will have been born free. Their loyalty to the movement that delivered their liberty will depend much more on their own current opportunities than on the past sacrifices of their parents.
The G8 group of major powers and the European Union have not done very well yet in their handling of the economic crisis that erupted around 2007 and which continues, but it is clear that they are giving it mature and constant attention. They are hobbled mainly by their inability to put the world ahead of their own national interests and take some pain.
Here we are hobbled by the inability of the ANC's leaders to put even the interests of their party, not to mention their country, ahead of their personal interests. In this moment, which calls for the sort of united action that wars sometimes trigger, we face a year of petty skirmishes within a party apparently unable to see the bigger picture, and certainly unable to react to it.
Is it too late for the men and women of vision within the ANC to see that this moment really is bigger than just the players, the party or even, in a global context, South Africa itself?
What better time could there be to draw a line under the collapse of ideals and values and turn the ANC around towards a future as admirable as its past?