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The ANC was formed on 8 January 1912 by John Dube, Pixley ka Isaka Seme and Sol Plaatje along with chiefs, people's representatives, and church organizations, and other prominent individuals to bring all Africans together as one people to defend their rights and freedoms, the ANC from its inception represented both traditional and modern elements, from tribal chiefs to church and community bodies and educated black professionals, though women were only admitted as affiliate members from 1931 and as full members in 1943.
The formation of the ANC Youth League in 1944 by Anton Lembede heralded a new generation committed to building non-violent mass action against the legal underpinnings of the white minority's supremacy.
In 1946 the ANC allied with the South African Communist Party in assisting in the formation of the South African Mine Workers' Union. After the miners strike became a general strike, the ANC's President General Alfred Bitini Xuma, along with delegates of the South African Indian Congress, attended the 1946 session of the United Nations General Assembly where the treatment of Indians in South Africa was raised by the Government of India. Together, they raised the issue of the police brutality against the miners strike and the wider struggle for equality in South Africa. The ANC also worked with the Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian Congress.
The return of an Afrikaner-led National Party government by the overwhelmingly white electorate in 1948 signaled the advent of the policy of Apartheid. During the 1950s, non-whites were removed from electoral rolls, residence and mobility laws were tightened and political activities restricted.
The successful increase of awareness outside of South Africa achieved in the Indians' movement under the leadership of Gandhi inspired blacks in South Africa to resist the racism and inequality that they, and all other non-whites, were experiencing. The two racial groups began working together, forcing themselves to accept one another and bash their own personal prejudices against one another. This required effort: education supporting the other race and their achievements, and constantly reminding themselves that they needed one another to combat the oppression they were facing. They began collaborating, even jointly campaigning for their struggle to be managed by the United Nations (although in this time, western society was not practising equality for all people either).
The ANC also found its role model in the initial movement by the Indian political parties. They realized that they would need a fervent leader, like Gandhi was for the Indians, who was, in the words of Nelson Mandela, "willing to violate the law and if necessary go to prison for their beliefs as Gandhi had". In 1949 the ANC saw a jump in their membership, which previously lingered around five-thousand, and began to establish a firm presence in South African national society.
In June 1952, the ANC joined with other anti-Apartheid organizations in a Defiance Campaign against the restriction of political, labour and residential rights, during which protesters deliberately violated oppressive laws, following the example of Mahatma Gandhi's passive resistance in KwaZulu-Natal and in India. The campaign was called off in April 1953 after new laws prohibiting protest meetings were passed.
In June 1955 the Congress of the People, organised by the ANC and Indian, Coloured and White organizations at Kliptown near Johannesburg, adopted the Freedom Charter, henceforth the fundamental document of the anti-Apartheid struggle with its demand for equal rights for all regardless of race. As opposition to the regime's policies continued, 156 leading members of the ANC and allied organisations were arrested in 1956; the resulting "Treason Trial" ended with their acquittal five years later.
In 1959 a number of members broke away from the ANC because they objected to the ANC's reorientation from African nationalist policies. They formed the rival Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), led by Robert Sobukwe.
The ANC planned a campaign against the Pass Laws, which required blacks to carry an identity card at all times to justify their presence in White areas, to begin on 31 March 1960. The PAC pre-empted the ANC by holding unarmed protests 10 days earlier, during which 69 protesters were killed and 180 injured by police fire in what became known as the Sharpeville massacre.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, both organisations were banned from political activity. International opposition to the regime increased throughout the 1950s and 1960s, fueled by the growing number of newly independent nations, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain and the civil rights movement in the United States. In 1960, the leader of the ANC, Albert Luthuli, won the Nobel Peace Prize, a feat that would be repeated in 1993 by the next leader of the ANC, Nelson Mandela, and F.W. de Klerk jointly, for their actions in helping to negotiate peaceful transition after Mandela's release from prison, which was a great step towards better rights for blacks.
Following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the ANC leadership concluded that the methods of non-violence such as those utilised by Gandhi against the British Empire during their colonisation of India were not suitable against the Apartheid system. A military wing was formed in 1961, called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), meaning "Spear of the Nation", with Mandela as its first leader. MK operations during the 1960s primarily involved targeting and sabotaging government facilities. Mandela was arrested in 1962, convicted of sabotage in 1964 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, along with Sisulu and other ANC leaders after the Rivonia Trial.
During the 1970s and 1980s the ANC leadership in exile under Oliver Tambo made the decision to target Apartheid government leadership, command and control, secret police, and military-industrial complex assets and personnel in decapitation strikes, targeted killings, and guerilla actions such as bomb explosions in facilities frequented by military and government personnel. A number of civilians were also killed in these attacks. Examples of these include the Amanzimtoti bombing, the Sterland bomb in Pretoria, the Wimpy bomb in Pretoria, the Juicy Lucy bomb in Pretoria and the Magoo's bar bombing in Durban. ANC acts of sabotage aimed at government institutions included the bombing of the Johannesburg Magistrates Court, the attack on the Koeberg nuclear power station, the rocket attack on Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria, and the 1983 Church Street bombing in Pretoria, which killed 16 and wounded 130.
The ANC was classified as a terrorist  organisation by the South African government and by some Western countries including the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the ANC had a London office from 1978 to 1994 at 28 Penton Street in Islington, north London, now marked with a plaque.
During this period, the South African military engaged in a number of raids and bombings on ANC bases in Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. Dulcie September, a member of the ANC who was investigating the arms trade between France and South Africa was assassinated in Paris in 1988. In the ANC's training camps, the ANC faced allegations that dissident members faced torture, detention without trial and even execution in ANC prison camps. In South Africa, the campaign to make the townships "ungovernable" led to kangaroo courts and mob executions of opponents and collaborators, often by necklacing.
There was violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party. For example between 1985 and 1989, 5,000 civilians were killed in fighting between the two parties. Massacres of each other's supporters include the Shell House massacre and the Boipatong massacre.
As the years progressed, the African National Congreses attacks, coupled with international pressure and internal dissent, increased in South Africa. The ANC received financial and tactical support from the USSR, which orchestrated military involvement with surrogate Cuban forces through Angola. However, the fall of the USSR after 1991 brought an end to its funding of the ANC and also changed the attitude of some Western governments that had previously supported the Apartheid regime as an ally against communism. The South African government found itself under increasing internal and external pressure, and this, together with a more conciliatory tone from the ANC, resulted in a change in the political landscape. State President F.W. de Klerk unbanned the ANC and other banned organisations on 2 February 1990, and began peace talks for a negotiated settlement to end Apartheid.
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With the end of apartheid, it was a foregone conclusion that the ANC would not only win the April 1994 general election—the country's first multiracial elections—but do so in a landslide. In that election, the ANC, as the dominant partner in a tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, won a comprehensive victory, coming up just a few votes short of the two-thirds majority required to unilaterally amend the Interim Constitution. The new legislature elected Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa, making him the country's first black chief executive.
In 2004 the party contested national elections in voluntary coalition with the New National Party (NNP), which it effectively absorbed following the NNP's dissolution in 2005.
After the 1994 and 1999 elections it ruled seven of the nine provinces, with Kwa-Zulu Natal under the IFP and the Western Cape Province under the NNP. As of 2004, it gained both the Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal after a combination of the NNP's electoral base being eroded by the DA and a poor showing by the IFP.
By 2001 the tripartite alliance between the ANC, COSATU and SACP began showing signs of strain as the ANC moved to more liberal economic policies than its alliance partners were comfortable with. The focus for dissent was the GEAR program, an initialism for "Growth, Employment and Redistribution."
In late 2004 this was again thrown into sharp relief by Zwelinzima Vavi of COSATU protesting the ANC's policy of "quiet diplomacy" towards the worsening conditions in Zimbabwe, as well as Black Economic Empowerment, which he complained benefits a favoured few in the black elite and not the masses.
As of 2005 the alliance was facing a crisis as Jacob Zuma, who was fired from his position as Deputy President of South Africa by Thabo Mbeki, faced corruption charges. Complicating the situation was the fact that Zuma remained Deputy President of the ANC, and maintained a strong following amongst many ANC supporters, and the ANC's alliance partners. In October 2005, top officials in the National Intelligence Agency, who were Zuma supporters, were suspended for illegally spying on an Mbeki supporter, Saki Macozoma, amid allegations that ANC supporters were using their positions within organs of state to spy on, and discredit each other. In December 2005, Zuma was charged with rape  and his position as Deputy President of the ANC was suspended.
Jacob Zuma was acquitted of the rape charges, and was reinstated as Deputy President of the organisation. A battle for leadership of the ANC followed, culminating at the party's national conference in Polokwane (16–20 December 2007), where both Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki were nominated for the position of president. On 18 December 2007, Jacob Zuma was elected President of the ANC at the ANC conference in Polokwane
The ANC "WaBenzi" are now commonly considered to be more concerned with the spoils of power (such as BMWs, Whisky & Italian Clothes) than they are with furthering the development of the people.