The good, the bad and the great

08 January 2012 - 02:13 By Caiphus Kgosana
subscribe Support independent journalism. Subscribe to our digital news package for R80 p/m.
Subscribe now

The ANC is 100 years old today. From a struggle against power, to wielding it, we take a look at the past presidents of the ANC.


DUBE was elected in absentia as the founding president of the South African Native National Council, which later became known as the African National Congress, in 1912.

Educated in the United States, Dube was one of the pioneering African leaders during the missionary era in the then Natal.

He was deeply influenced by Booker T Washington, by then the most prominent moderate African-American intellectual and leader in North America.

The success of Washington's Tuskegee Institute inspired Dube, on his return to South Africa, to form his own industrial school in Ohlange, near Durban - which is still in operation. He also established Ilanga lase Natal, a Zulu-language newspaper still in existence.

As ANC president, Dube mounted a stiff resistance campaign against the enactment of the Land Act of 1913 that severely limited land ownership by Africans. His contemporaries, however, felt he had compromised heavily on the principle of segregation when he led a delegation to London to protest against the draconian legislation.

Though he opposed the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, he was later perceived as having betrayed the struggle when, in 1930, he openly toyed with the idea of supporting the then government's discriminatory bills in the hope that this would result in more funding for development projects.

He had already been ousted in 1917.


NELSON Mandela named his son after Makgatho, a teacher educated in England, who was also a blood relative of the famed chief Sekhukhune of the Bapedi tribe.

He was president of the Transvaal Native Congress, which merged with other organisations to form the ANC. He was also a founder member of the Transvaal African Teachers' Association.

During his tenure the movement adopted many of its insignia and slogans. These include the black, green and gold colours, Mayibuye iAfrika (Africa must come back) as a slogan and Nkosi Sikelel'iAfrica as its anthem.

The ANC under Makgatho was viewed as mainly passive and characterised by petitions rather than resistance. But these should not negate Makgatho's own involvement in resistance campaigns. He led a successful campaign in Pretoria against a government regulation that banned Africans from walking on city pavements and confined them to tarred roads with passing vehicles a constant danger.

He also led resistance to the extension of pass laws to African women.

ZACHARIA MAHABANE (1924-1930 and 1937-1940)

IT is difficult to understand why Mahabane served twice as ANC president, given his backward views on the right to universal franchise.

His official biography says he was called back to rescue a movement that had declined in membership under Pixley ka Isaka Seme. But Mahabane's willingness to compromise on the demand for Africans to be included in the common voters roll ultimately defined the crisis of the ANC at the time: a party led by missionary-educated, aristocratic Africans who were willing to accept the idea of a qualified franchise. Such an approach would not have resonated with the masses. Mahabane believed that a separate voters roll for Africans would have been acceptable if whites found the idea of a common voters roll too menacing.

JOSIAH GUMEDE (1927-1930)

HIS stay in office was short-lived, largely because of his attempt to turn the ANC into a socialist party soon after visiting the Soviet Union.

"I have seen the world to come, where it has already begun. I have been to the new Jerusalem," he declared on his return from the communist country. This angered ANC aristocrats, who included chiefs and kings who were suspicious of communists and their opposition to monarchy. They conspired to oust him in 1930 and replace him with Seme.


ONE of the founding leaders of the ANC, he had served as the movement's first secretary in 1912.

His ultra-conservative and traditionalist views made him, in the eyes of chiefs and other party leaders, a perfect replacement for Gumede. But his attempts to turn the organisation into economic self-help units and to revive the House of Chiefs failed spectacularly.

In fact Seme so alienated the broader masses that Mahabane had to be brought back to revive an organisation in steady decline.

DR ALFRED B XUMA (1940-1949)

HE is often remembered in the ANC as the first party president to be ousted by the ANC Youth League, but what often gets left out is that it was under his leadership that the organisation began its march to becoming a mass-based liberation, as opposed to a club of the educated elite.

It was during his tenure as president that the ANC entered into a pact with the Natal and Transvaal Indian congresses - setting the foundation for non-racial struggles as well as the ANC's involvement in alliance politics.

The one-time school teacher, who later became a European-trained gynaecologist, was also at the helm of the ANC when the decision to form the youth league was taken.

But Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other youth league leaders later turned against him when Xuma refused to lead the organisation's disobedience campaign against racist laws.

DR JAMES MOROKA (1949-1952)

PROBABLY one of the worst ANC presidents, Moroka came to power on a youth league ticket - having been fetched from home by Mandela's group after they failed to find a suitable challenger to Xuma.

Arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act and with the prospect of a lengthy jail term looming, Moroka denounced the principles of non-racialism. He was summarily expelled from the ANC.


ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg are named after Luthuli and it is easy to understand why. A great thinker and a selfless leader, Luthuli's sacrifices and commitment to peace earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, he angered some of the more militant members of the ANC with his insistence to adhere to non-violent protests. It was also on his watch that the Pan Africanists, led by Robert Sobukwe, broke away to form the Pan-African Congress.

OLIVER TAMBO (1967-1990)

TAMBO's greatest achievement was to keep the ANC intact during its most trying period in history when it was banned and forced to operate from exile. Not many liberation movements re-emerge out of such an experience united.

In exile, Tambo had to deal with a number of serious challenges, including mutinies by members of the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe as well as an attempt by eight of its former senior leaders to form a breakaway party. Over and above this, the party had to deal with regular infiltration by apartheid state agents.

There were also countless arrests and murders of political activists, the June 1976 student uprisings and impatient calls for the ANC to take a more hardline stance to bring about freedom. But Tambo, a shrewd thinker, also had the foresight to realise when the time had arrived to begin talking to the ruling National Party to pave the way for democracy.

NELSON MANDELA (1990-1997)

THE most famous and most decorated of ANC presidents, Mandela is a trained lawyer who spent 27 years in prison for fighting apartheid. He later became South Africa's first democratically elected president.

He was instrumental in setting up the ANC Youth League with Walter Sisulu and Anton Lembede when they grew impatient of the ANC's soft stance in the face of growing state aggression. He was arrested along with other political prisoners and charged in the famous Rivonia Trial, before being shipped off to Robben Island.

When the ANC was unbanned and he was released from prison, he adopted a more nonracial approach. Mandela had the difficult task of allaying minority fears of a black government and maintaining the ANC intact. He also initiated a massive reconstruction and development programme aimed at uplifting poor black communities.

He later delegated many of his executive duties to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded him both in the ANC and as head of state.

THABO MBEKI (1997-2007)

THE son of Rivonia trialist Govan Mbeki was educated at Sussex University during his more than three decades in exile. Highly intelligent, Mbeki was groomed for leadership from a young age. Tambo took him under his wing and passed on to Mbeki the traits necessary for running a successful political organisation.

When he became president in 1999, Mbeki pushed through more conservative macroeconomic policies and encouraged the accumulation of wealth by blacks through the policy of black economic empowerment. He surrounded himself with loyalists and flirted with controversial ideas, especially in respect of HIV/Aids.

Although the ANC grew during his tenure, Mbeki failed to read the initial signs of discontent among the rank and file. It would cost him dearly. It was also under his leadership that the rot that has set in in the ANC - the scramble for tenders and government contracts - began at local level.

In his second term, Mbeki alienated the ANC's alliance partners who criticised his leadership style and the economic policies of his government. But it was his treatment of his deputy, Jacob Zuma, that resulted in an uprising against him, with the youth league at the forefront. Zuma ousted him as ANC leader in Polokwane in 2007 and a year later the ANC removed him as president of the country following a court judgement in favour of Zuma, who was facing corruption charges.

JACOB ZUMA (2007-)

ZUMA, who has no formal schooling, grew up as a herdboy in rural KwaZulu-Natal. He later joined the ANC and was imprisoned on Robben Island for 10 years. Zuma left the country after being released and went on to head ANC intelligence in Swaziland. Upon returning to the country he worked closely with Mbeki during negotiations that paved the way for democracy.

Zuma then led the organisation in KwaZulu-Natal, where he was instrumental in brokering peace between warring ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party members. He was elected deputy president of the ANC in 1997. Mbeki fired him as deputy president of the country in 2005 following the conviction of his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, for fraud. Zuma spectacularly toppled Mbeki two years later and took over as president in 2009.

In his four-year tenure as ANC president and in the two years that he has ruled the country, Zuma as alienated the youth league, some Cosatu leaders and powerful ANC figures. He has reshuffled his cabinet twice and has had some of his appointments successfully challenged in courts. Zuma will deliver the centenary address of a party highly divided, crippled by the sins of incumbency.

Under him the ANC also has to deal with a more disillusioned electorate and the growth of the Democratic Alliance, especially in traditional ANC areas.

subscribe Support independent journalism. Subscribe to our digital news package for R80 p/m.
Subscribe now