LOEMFONTEIN, South Africa, Dec 16 – Embattled South African President Jacob Zuma made the case on Sunday for his re-election, promising his ANC party meaningful change as he sought to face down a leadership challenge from his deputy.
Zuma wooed delegates at the African National Congress’s five-yearly conference with a robust defence of his much-criticised term in office, a pledge of change and his trademark ebullient charm.
Calling for unity Zuma said the successful anti-apartheid movement was ready to “move into the second phase” which would focus on bringing “meaningful socio-economic freedom”.
“We worked together to bring about freedom, justice and human rights during the struggle for liberation and currently as we fight poverty, inequality and unemployment,” he said.
The ANC meeting in the central city of Bloemfontein will go a long way towards deciding who will lead South Africa until the end of the decade.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is hoping to wrest control of the party from Zuma, who has been president of the Africa’s economic powerhouse since 2009.
Should Motlanthe succeed, the ANC’s commanding electoral standing means he is almost certain to become the country’s next president.
Zuma’s tenure has been marred by a series of personal financial scandals, and he has been pilloried for his handling of the economy.
Millions of black South Africans still wallow in poverty 18 years after the ANC came to power with the first black president, Nelson Mandela.
Acknowledging that the road to prosperity will be “long and hard”, Zuma insisted however that “the ANC remains the only hope for the poor and marginalised.”
He said he recognised that there had been problems with his term in office, not least in keeping the economy afloat.
South Africa has faced a slew of credit ratings downgrades as unemployment remained stubbornly high around 25 percent and growth slowed to the slowest rate in three years, The vital mining sector has been hit by waves of violent unrest including the killing of 34 miners by police in August.
Addressing investors, Zuma said he wanted to “dismiss the perceptions that our country is falling apart”.
He eschewed talk of privatising the mining sector, and backed a centrist plan to improve the economy over two decades.
“The destination we are heading towards is a mixed economy, where the state, private capital, cooperative and other forms of social ownership complement each other.”
In the fight of his political life, Zuma also turned on his famed charisma to win over the 4,500 delegates who are attending the five-day conference.
Zuma opened his speech by leading thousands of ANC members clad in party colours and regalia in an a cappella tribute to ailing former leader Mandela.
The 94-year-old elder statesman and Nobel Peace laureate has been in hospital for more than a week, undergoing surgery to remove gallstones and getting treatment for a lung infection.
“He is receiving good care from a competent and caring medical team,” Zuma said.
Despite his troubles, Zuma is expected to prevail when delegates vote later in the week.
Preliminary voting has put the incumbent well ahead of his rival Motlanthe, a former trade union leader who briefly served as interim president in 2008-2009, in the leadership stakes.
Zuma also remains the odds-on favourite to remain in power after the 2014 elections.
“He has done what he needs to do to win. He defended his record,” said Romeo Mokone, a delegate from Gauteng province, which has been hostile to Zuma.
To shore up support, Zuma’s camp is backing Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president. A former trade unionist and successful businessman Ramaphosa’s appeal spans the party’s main political divides.
But with the party mired in the kind of crisis seldom seen since it was banned by the apartheid government in 1960, Zuma is facing a rocky ride at the ANC conference, which caps a horrendous year for the storied revolutionary movement.
Despite the cadres’ best efforts, 12 months of celebrations to mark the ANC’s 100th year have been drowned out by allegations of corruption, flashes of authoritarianism and economic mismanagement which critics say borders on gross negligence.