, JOHANNESBURG, Jan 7 – South Africa\’s ruling party turns 99 years old on Saturday with its popular but controversial leader President Jacob Zuma under pressure to assert his authority and improve ordinary people\’s lives.
The African National Congress (ANC), which prides itself on being Africa\’s oldest liberation movement, will celebrate the anniversary in Polokwane, a town north of Johannesburg, where Zuma was anointed head of the party in 2007.
In his 19-months in office, Zuma, a political survivor who has risen from being a cattle herder to president, has been praised for being a unifying figure, but analysts say he has struggled to show strong leadership.
Jeremy Gordin, who wrote "Zuma — a biography", an unauthorised account of the president\’s political career, said Zuma needed to instil diligence among his ministers if he wanted the country\’s situation to improve.
"He is not given to wagging a finger at people. He is ostensibly easy going. He needs to kick some ass," Gordin told AFP ahead of the weekend event where Zuma will address ANC delegates.
"There is so much that needs to be done and things just aren\’t moving," Gordin added, alluding to an official jobless rate of 25.2 percent, which unofficial figures put at above 40 percent.
The ANC\’s senior members have weathered internal divisions and numerous allegations of corruption since sweeping to power in elections in 1994 after the end of apartheid, but it has come up short of public expectations.
Zuma\’s first months in office were marred by violent protests as impoverished communities expressed anger at the government\’s slow pace in delivering services, in a country with one of the world\’s most unequal societies.
In October last year, he announced a cabinet reshuffle after firing seven underperforming ministers in a bid to strengthen his administration.
However, most blacks, who make up the bulk of the ANC support base, still live in poverty, with limited access to proper sanitation and housing, 16 years after Nelson Mandela became the country\’s first black president.
The ANC will use upcoming local elections expected in May or June to gauge support at grass-root level, which has been dented by a series of protests over poor service delivery, a subject that Zuma is expected to mention on Saturday.
An increasing wealth gap between rich and poor among the 49 million population is one of the challenges facing the country as it enters 2011.
The party\’s image as a champion of the poor has also been damaged by Zuma\’s high-spending ministers, who have splurged on expensive official cars and upmarket hotel stays at a time when the country has not long exited recession.
"There is no doubt that the change in the relationship between the ANC and the state has changed many of its members and leaders in ways that are a betrayal of principles that drove the struggle against apartheid," said Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies.
However, Dirk Kotze, a political analyst at the University of South Africa (UNISA), said that although jobs and public services were lagging, Zuma\’s authority had never been higher within the ANC movement.
"He clearly consolidated his position within the ANC and it\’ll continue," said Kotze, referring to Zuma\’s actions at the ANC\’s national congress last September.
"The (ANC) youth league is very quiet now and the main concern of COSATU (the country\’s main union bloc) is job creation. As long as the government talks about job creation, they will be more or less satisfied."