Jacob Zuma has moved to reassure international investors that there will be no radical shift in economic policies in his first public comments since winning a bitter battle for leadership of the African National Congress against President Thabo Mbeki.
The controversial and charismatic former union leader's address to the party came on the same day that South Africa's top prosecutor said he believed there was enough evidence to bring renewed corruption charges against him.
Mr Zuma vowed to mend the unprecedented rifts that have torn his party asunder and that saw the outgoing ANC president, Thabo Mbeki, being repeatedly jeered and booed at the party's conference in the northern city of Polokwane this week. He also denied claims that some of his rival's key ministers, such as Trevor Manuel, who holds the finance portfolio, and has overseen a period of unprecedented economic growth, would resign rather than work with him.
Earlier yesterday, Mokotedi Mpshe, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), appeared to confirm that the new ANC leader would be charged with fraud and corruption arising from a multi-billion dollar arms deal. This drew an angry reaction from Mr Zuma's supporters who have managed to secure a resolution for the disbandment of the FBI-styled anti-crime unit, called the Scorpions.
Mr Zuma said he did not understand why the allegations were being raised in the media and not in a court. "There was an investigation conducted publicly against me. I was threatened to be charged in public. There were things said about me. My problem was why are these things being said in public?"
The Scorpions, part of the NPA, has had the best track record among South Africa's anti-crime units, securing the most convictions. The group has been responsible for all the investigations against Mr Zuma and has already secured the conviction and a 15-year sentence against his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, for facilitating arms tender kickbacks.
Investigators in the Scorpions could be moved to the South African Police Service (Saps) headed by Jackie Selebi, the police commissioner who is himself subject to investigations by the Scorpions over his alleged involvement in organised crime.
The announcement of the planned decision to charge Mr Zuma, so soon after his election as ANC president, underscored the fears that many people hold over the creation of two centres of power between Mr Mbeki as head of state and Mr Zuma as leader of the ruling party.
Analysts fear that a battle for political territory between the two men could paralyse government. Mr Zuma's supporters are adamant that Mr Mbeki is influencing the NPA to press charges against him in a bid to prevent him replacing the President when his term ends in 2009.
In public at least, yesterday, Mr Zuma attempted to heal the rift with Mr Mbeki: "I must confess I never thought that the two of us would one day compete for the same position in the ANC. However, contesting positions does not make us enemies."
Mr Mbeki fired Mr Zuma in 2005 after he was charged with bribery and fraud over a multi-million-dollar arms deal. The case collapsed on a technicality. Mr Zuma then successfully fought off rape charges and has bounced back to trounce his opponent after a very divisive party campaign. The change of style at the top of the ANC immediately became evident after Mr Zuma finished his inaugural speech. He sang two anti-apartheid songs before leading a very spirited rendition of his hallmark anthem, "bring me my machine gun", to much ululation from the conference delegates.
Populist antics such as this fell out of fashion under Mr Mbeki's leadership leading to accusations in the party rank and file that he was aloof and arrogant.
Mr Zuma adopted a more cautious approach on the economy, emphasising that there would be no fundamental shift in the party's policies. "We need to heal the ANC. We must also work with government and other sectors to build a caring society," he said, dispelling fears that he would push for communist policies favoured by his allies. He also pledged to fight crime and Aids but to follow Mr Mbeki's policies on another controversial topic, Zimbabwe.
Despite Mr Zuma's assurances, many South Africans and international investors remain unsure about the future, especially in light of the suggestion that graft charges will be pressed against him. The financial markets have so far given Mr Zuma the benefit of the doubt.Reuse content