THE African National Congress (ANC) is preparing for its 53rd national conference at the end of its centennial year, offering it an opportunity to cast its eyes back over a rich yet troubled history. Among 20th-century liberation movements, the ANC stands out as one that remained relevant while others have calcified, gone senile or died.

January 8 1912 was the realisation of a vision that had evolved among the educated African elite in the last 20 years of the 19th century. As the products of the same schools, they recognised their shared condition as a conquered and dispossessed people, although they were governed by four different colonial regimes. The institutions they initiated, such as the Ethiopian churches and their newspapers, drew adherents and readers across the borders of all four of the territories that merged into the Union in 1910.

The movement was the brainchild of a generation of young Africans educated in the US and the UK. In an age before female suffrage, it was composed exclusively of men, though Charlotte Maxeke founded an auxiliary women’s league. The objective of the founders was to yoke the efforts of the traditional and modern African elites to defend and extend the rights of Africans within the parameters of the colonial state.

The ANC has been compelled to define and redefine itself repeatedly in response to unfolding events during a century of unprecedented change. There were moments when the movement overreached itself, adopting political platforms for which neither its members nor its immediate constituency were prepared. There were periods when it declined to near irrelevance. At other times, the combined effects of state repression and its own errors threatened the movement with extinction. But it weathered these conditions because of a capacity for self-correction.

Running like a red thread through a century of ANC strategy is the importance of alliances. In pursuance of long-range strategic or immediate tactical gains, the ANC consistently sought allies or built alliances that mutated as the political terrain changed.

Between 1912 and 1939, the principal alliance the ANC pursued was with the liberals among the white political elite. Of secondary importance were alliances with the coloured and Indian political elites. Liberals, such as Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, in Jan Smuts’s United Party cabinet, were also cultivated in the belief that their strategic positioning close to Smuts could leverage reform. The failure of the liberals to sway white opinion, demonstrated by Smuts’s response to the Fagan commission, discredited that strategy. The ANC’s 1949 Programme of Action signalled the adoption of one reliant on the political action of the people themselves.

It was first tested during the Defiance Campaign of 1952, when the ANC, in alliance with the South African Indian Congress, attempted a mass civil disobedience campaign. That campaign transformed the ANC into a movement of struggle. The new strategy sought to build an alliance among the organised bodies representing the three oppressed communities, rope in white opponents of racism through tactical alliances around specific issues, and generate tension among the supporters of apartheid. The Freedom Charter became its common programme. It was a strategy fraught with the contradictions that erupted in the Africanists’ walkout in 1959.

Before Helen Suzman and others broke with the United Party in 1959, the voice of liberalism in Parliament was kept alive by the "natives’ representatives", elected by a handful of African voters in the Cape. Hendrik Verwoerd’s "bantu self-government" agenda got rid of them and white voters ejected all the liberals, save Helen Suzman, from Parliament in the 1960s.

An extraparliamentary movement was the midwife of SA’s democracy. The ANC was swept into political office by the alliance constructed as the movement recovered from the repression of the 1960s. Though it was never alone in the field, the ANC was the only movement that devised a strategy to harness the energies of autonomous bodies into an effective united front. By the mid-1980s, in SA and abroad, the ANC was visibly the principal co-ordinating centre of liberation politics. Every opposition current found ways of relating to it as business, academic and political delegations engaged it in dialogue.

The ANC dominates the political landscape thanks to the alliances it built during the 1980s and after. The first four democratic elections indicate that it involved organised workers, women’s organisations, peasants, the youth and faith bodies. ANC influence was also evident among liberal professionals. Since coming into office, it has also drawn conservative constituents, including traditionalists and the flotsam of the National Party (NP), into its orbit.

In 1994, white dissidence was represented by the NP. Though expressed in the accents of anticorruption and better government, it has found a home in the Democratic Alliance (DA). This probably accounts for the resistance that DA overtures to form a united opposition have encountered.

Any earnest realignment of South African politics requires the dismantling of the two alliances led by the DA and the ANC respectively. The ANC will emerge from Mangaung more united if it musters the moral courage for the serious introspection required to reclaim the moral high ground.

• Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.