THE 101st anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC) on January 8 once again profiled its ironic evolution in South Africa.

When the UK granted the Cape Colony a representative government in 1853, it empowered voters in the colony to elect a legislative assembly, operating under the colonial office. All male British subjects in the Cape, who owned or controlled economic assets of a certain value — irrespective of their race — had the franchise. In 1953, a century later, the last vestiges of that franchise were being obliterated. By the time of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, not a single black person in South Africa had the vote.

The ANC came into existence during a 40-year time frame, between 1870 and 1914, referred to as the Age of Imperialism by historian Eric Hobsbawm. These four decades witnessed the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, at which Africa was carved up among the powers of Europe. The US and Japan emerged as players on the world stage in the same period.

The first pan-African conference, at which WEB du Bois pronounced that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the colour line, met in 1900. One of the leitmotifs of 20th-century history has indeed been the struggle for liberation and emancipation.

In Southern African, it was a time of high levels of violence. Probably more wars were fought than during the previous 150 years of a European presence in this region. They culminated in the Act of Union of 1909, unifying South Africa as a dominion of the British crown.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, no part of Africa was governed by Africans. Africa was either governed directly from the colonial offices in Europe or by white settlers drawn from Europe. In the rest of the world, with the exception of Haiti, people of African descent lived either under colonial domination or under racially exclusive regimes in countries such as Brazil, the US and Canada.

The South African Aborigines’ Association, known as Imbumba Yama Nyama in Xhosa, was founded by a group of African farmers in the Eastern Cape in 1882.

A second organisation, the Native Electors Association, was created in 1884 precisely to intervene in the political processes in the colonial society. In the Western Cape, the South African Coloured People’s Association was formed to co-ordinate the activities of coloured voters in 1892. In 1893, the property-owning class of the most recent group of black immigrants, the Indians, founded the Natal Indian Congress with Mahatma Gandhi as its head. Though initially focused on the disabilities and rights of their specific ethnic communities, these bodies became the custodians of the democratic and liberal values white South Africa eschewed in 1909.

In 1909, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a young South African barrister, suggested that a national organisation be formed to agitate for the rights of black people and to protect the rights they had. After the Act of Union was signed in 1910, Seme wrote an article for the leading African newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, appealing to Africans to bury the intertribal animosities of the past. "We are one people", he said, and these "divisions and these jealousies are the cause of all our woes".

Delegates from as far away as then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe converged on Bloemfontein in January 1912. After two days of deliberations, the conference passed a resolution to found the South African Native National Congress, with a House of Notables to be chaired by King Letsie II of Lesotho, and a constitutional committee chaired by Richard Msimang.

The constitution committee completed its work in 1919, and in 1923 the South African Native National Congress changed its name to the African National Congress and began to challenge institutions of white domination, first by posing alternative paths of development, an alternative vision for the country as a whole, and in the end seized the initiative from the dominant white minority.

These values and ideals, mainly derived from the British and US liberal traditions, had found no place in the Act of Union and in the institutions it created: government by consent of the governed, equality before the law, equal opportunities for self-advancement, freedom of association and freedom of speech. The national liberation movement became the custodian of democratic values, while every political trend among the white minority either brazenly advocated white domination and privilege or concocted elaborate schemes for its retention in the guise of liberal policies.

The history of 20th-century South Africa was the contest between an inclusive, progressive and modernist African nationalism and a white ethnic nationalism upholding a racial hierarchy and undemocratic governance and opposed to liberal notions of equality. In 1994, after 82 years, the democratic principle won: a victory for all South Africans.

• Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.