JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African President Jacob Zuma acknowledged Sunday that corruption and violence have marred the image of the African National Congress under his watch, but called on members to again support him to be the political party's leader.
The ANC, once a liberation movement that started a century ago to fight apartheid, has been governing South Africa for 18 years and faces increasing criticism in this nation of 50 million people that's the continent's top economy. Some 4,000 delegates gathered Sunday for the start of the party's Mangaung conference, being held in the city also known as Bloemfontein, and listened to Zuma offer occasionally candid comments about the party's issues. Still, Zuma made promises and said his government remained on track to change South Africa, attempting to appeal to delegates who will decide whether Zuma or his quiet deputy Kgalema Motlanthe should take charge of the party. And while Zuma long has been trailed by corruption allegations and questions about his personal life, he remains the favorite among delegates to lead the party and likely become South Africa's president after the nation's 2014 elections.
"We want to dismiss the perceptions that the country is falling apart," Zuma said in his speech televised live across the country. However, he later admitted: "The challenges we face — unemployment, poverty and inequality — are South African in their origin, and are deep and structural."
The ANC remains the dominant political force in post-apartheid South Africa and opposition parties don't receive the same support at the polls, meaning whomever is named president of party will more than likely become the nation's next president. However, South Africa has seen credit downgrades in recent months, as well as violent protests across its mining industry that saw about 46 people killed at a Marikana platinum mine, most by police.
In his more than one hour and a half speech, Zuma called the violence at Marikana an "indictment" of the ANC for not being there for the miners. He also criticized the violence and bribery that accompanied ANC meetings leading up to the Mangaung conference, which saw several people killed.
"We should not allow the situation where those who have money turn ANC members into commodities," Zuma said. "All these tendencies have been creeping into the movement gradually and they need to be dealt with very strongly."
The 70-year-old Zuma also criticized the process that the government uses to award contracts for allowing corruption that is "turning people we know into something else." That comment, as well as others, drew murmurs from delegates that saw it as a reflection of the corruption allegations and claims of ethical impropriety that have clouded Zuma.
Zuma faces criticism over the millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made to his private homestead. That comes as most black South Africans, the base of the ANC's following, remain mired in poverty.
The president also has been implicated in a corruption probe surrounding a 1999 arms deal, as well as faced accusations from the media about being unable to manage his own personal finances. Zuma also has faced criticisms over his private life, ranging from his multiple marriages to his 2006 trial for charges of raping a family friend that ended in an acquittal.
His main competition in the ANC is Motlanthe, his 63-year-old deputy president and a former union leader. Motlanthe served as a caretaker president for South Africa from September 2008 to May 2009, after Zuma ousted Mbeki as leader of the ANC in tight party election. Motlanthe also offers what appears to be the opposite of Zuma's leadership — a pensive and technocratic approach that differs from Zuma's crowd-pleasing comments and dancing.
Despite the challenge, Zuma still remains the favorite to lead the party. He won more provinces in recent local polls and delegates on Sunday sang pro-Zuma songs and raised their two fingers above their head — a call for his second term. Those supporting Motlanthe rolled their fingers above their head, signifying they wanted a change.
In the coming days, delegates will vote for leaders by a secret ballot, without their mobile phones after concerns arose over people being told to photograph their ballots to prove who they vote for, ANC organizers have said. If it becomes a race with multiple candidates and no one gets more than 50 percent of the ballots cast, there will be a run-off with the top two candidates, they said.
In his speech, Zuma criticized the media and "alien" practices he said were trying to tear the ANC apart. While acknowledging the movement had become an established political party instead of the guerrilla movement of the apartheid era, he also talked about the group's revolutionary past and sang about Nelson Mandela, the 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon who remains hospitalized after suffering from a lung infection and undergoing gallstone surgery.
In mentioning Mandela, as well as the ANC's past, Zuma appeared to try and link his current leadership with the larger history of the party. He cemented that by opening and closing his remarks by singing in Zulu: "The journey is long, ... Mandela told his followers that we'll meet on freedom day."
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.