By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A major South African bank has become embroiled in a row with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) over an advertising campaign in which youngsters voice concerns about the faltering progress of Nelson Mandela's self-styled 'Rainbow Nation'.
The "You Can Help" (www.youcanhelp.co.za) campaign by First National Bank (FNB), the high street arm of financial services group FirstRand, was billed as a bid to reinvigorate the push to build a non-racial democracy from the ashes of apartheid.
Instead, it elicited a furious response from the ANC, exposing a thinness of skin that belies the party's 19 years in power and virtually impregnable two-thirds majority in parliament.
The party's youth wing accused the bank of treason and a "lame attempt to recreate an Arab Spring of some sort in South Africa", while its Women's League branded the TV advert - which did not name the ANC - "offensive and politically biased".
In a statement, the party's chief spokesman dismissed the ad as "disrespectful to elders" and said the ANC would "engage" with FNB bosses, raising fears about freedom of expression in Africa's biggest economy.
The advert, which first aired last week, features a speech by a 17-year-old girl at a school in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto in which she expresses concerns about crime, corruption and a shambolic public education system.
The issues are all long-running political topics that the ANC has acknowledged are problems, but the ferocity of its reaction suggests concerns about a general election due in April next year.
While there is virtually no chance of the party that helped overturn decades of white-minority rule losing, analysts say it is worried about its popularity among the so-called "Born Frees" - young South Africans who have no memory of apartheid.
With millions of blacks seeing little improvement in their lives despite strong economic growth since 1994, the ANC is also worried that 94-year-old Mandela's campaign pledge of a "Better life for all" is starting to ring hollow.
"Clearly the ANC is very sensitive about the possibility it may lose votes because of ineffective management of the country in some places and not delivering on promises of jobs and growth," said William Gumede, a political analyst at Johannesburg's Wits University.
"Although the party has been in power for such a long time, it still has its inferiority complexes," he added.
"FROM THE HEART"
FNB said it would not bow to pressure to pull the advert, which was based on interviews with 1,360 young South Africans speaking unscripted and "from the heart".
It denied having any political motive in releasing a separate summary of its interviews that did include the youngsters' often damning criticism of the ANC and its leadership.
In the commercial hub of Johannesburg - home to a quarter of South Africa's 52 million people - just 4 percent of youngsters expressed a positive view of the leadership of Jacob Zuma, who came to office in 2009.
Quotes released by FNB suggest first-time voters take a very dim view of the numerous scandals that have plagued Zuma's administration - the latest being a $27 million state-funded upgrade to his private house.
"The country is being overrun by poverty ... while Jacob Zuma is renovating his home," one university student from Zuma's home province of KwaZulu Natal was quoted as saying.
Nor are the youth the only ones losing patience with the 101-year-old liberation movement.
The crucial mining sector is in a mess, with platinum giant Anglo American Platinum looking to close two mines and lay off 14,000 workers after the worst industrial unrest since apartheid last year.
In April, Reuel Khoza, the chairman of FNB rival Nedbank, triggered a vitriolic response when he labelled ANC leaders a "strange breed" incapable of running a sophisticated emerging economy in the 21st century.
South Africa's churches then launched a blistering attack in December, accusing the ANC of moral decay the week before a five-yearly meeting at which it re-elected Zuma as party president with a thumping internal majority.
($1 = 8.8636 South African rand)
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)