Formed initially to oppose the passage of the 1913 Land Act, 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 Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo heralded a new generation committed to building non-violent mass action against the legal underpinnings of white supremacy. In 1947 the ANC allied with the Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian congress, broadening the basis of its opposition to the government.
The return of an Afrikaner-led National Party government by the overwhelmingly white electorate in 1948 signaled the advent of the policy of Apartheid (Afrikaans, "separateness" of the races, or political and social segregation of black and white). During the 1950s non-whites were moved from electoral rolls, residence and mobility laws were tightened and political activities restricted.
In June 1952 the ANC joined with other anti-apartheid organisations in a "Defiance Campaign" against the restriction of political, labour and residential rights, during which protesters deliberately violated oppressive laws, following the example of Mohandas Gandhi's passive resistance in Natal and India. The campaign was called off in April 1953 after new laws prohibiting protest meetings.
In June 1955 the "Congress of the People" organised by the ANC and Indian, Coloured and white organisations 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 in their acquittal five years later.
After undertaking a campaign against the Pass Laws (requiring blacks to carry an identity card at all times to justify their presence in "white" areas) in which 69 protesters were shot by police (March 1960), the ANC was banned from political activity along with the Pan-Africanist Congress, which had broken away from it the year before under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe. The sympathetic South African Congress of Trade Unions was subsequently driven underground.
International opposition to the regime increased throughout the 1950s and 1960s, fueled by the growing number of newly-independent nations 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 Nelson Mandela.
Now underground or in exile, the ANC leadership came to the conclusion that armed means had become a legitimate means of resistance, and in 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) was created to carry out armed attacks against the government. Its commander, Mandela, was however arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 along with Sisulu and other ANC leaders.
[Soweto 1976; BC; 1984 Constitution and UDF to follow]
With apartheid ever more evidently untenable, the ANC and PAC were unbanned by president F.W. de Klerk on February 2, 1990. In April 1994, the ANC won a landslide victory in the country's first non-racial elections and the party has ruled the country in a series of voluntary coalitions with the New National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party, under presidents Nelson Mandela and (since June 1999) Thabo Mbeki. It also rules eight of the country's nine provinces.
The ANC can be described as the parliamentary wing of a tripartite alliance between itself, the Conference of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party. By 2001, this alliance was evidently showing signs of strain as the ANC moved to more right-wing economic policies than its alliance partners were prepared to accommodate.