ANC urged to deliver results on economy Bombay fisherwomen take to the streets in celebration of women's rights

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No smoking, no milling about, and no use of cellular telephones. The warning, issued by South African deputy president Thabo Mbeki to 3,000 African National Congress officials, seemed to symbolise how far the party, a banned underground movement o nly four years ago, had come.

But the reference to hi-tech communications may have reinforced the growing belief that just seven months after taking power, the ANC is increasingly out of touch with the mass of black voters who gave it a landslide victory in April's general elections.

"We could end up attracting to our ranks merely those who seek careers in government," President Nelson Mandela told the ANC's five-day national congress at the University of Bloemfontein.

After two days of meetings and a rowdy party on Saturday night, top ANC officials have rendered a clear verdict. So far, the party has failed to begin cleaning up what Mr Mandela called "the mess" left by the white minority government and leading millions of impoverished South Africans towards a better life.

That solemn message has overshadowed what should have been a celebration of the movement's victory in its 83-year campaign for majority rule.

"The ANC has struggled to find its feet in the political terrain of the new South Africa," the secretary-general, Cyril Ramaphosa, said yesterday. "Even within ANC ranks there has been confusion about the positions of the organisation on certain issues."His report to the conference said the party lacked decisive leadership, had a serious shortage of funds and was out of touch with its supporters.

The ANC's senior ranks had been depleted by the move of officials to government, he said, and the party relied too heavily on Mr Mandela. ANC branch structures and membership lists were in disarray.

Mr Mbeki appealed for unity and told the congress: "At all times, we should strive to bring the leadership of the ANC and government closer to the people."

Mr Mandela acknowledged popular impatience for better living standards, especially in the highly politicised black townships and squatter camps, during in his opening address on Saturday. Judgement of the congress, the ANC's 49th since it was formed in Bloemfontein in 1912, would depend on "whether the decisions we take bring practical relief to the millions who so graphically demonstrated their confidence in the ANC and democracy last April," he said. "Visible change will need to be the prime feature of government operations next year."

The mess Mr Mandela said the ANC had to clean up included corruption, unemployment at 40 per cent, seven million people without proper housing and an economy growing by 2 per cent this year, slower than the rise in population. Only efficient government spending and management, a disciplined labour force and a stable investment climate would promote the growth needed to uplift the poor, he said.

The ANC's slow movement on redistributing income and reforming the civil service and security forces, he said, were due to a desire to ensure a smooth transition and not "pandering to white fears".

Threats to the success of the ANC's Reconstruction and Development Programme came from "rearguard resistance from the parties of apartheid and white privilege", conspiracies in the security forces, and continued conflict with Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inka t ha Freedom Party in the province of Kwazulu-Natal.

Disputing the claim of Inkatha to represent the Zulu people, Mr Mandela went on: "A desperate struggle by elements of the IFP to maintain a power base among traditional leaders as an extension of the party does pose a danger of an eruption." The ANC sho u ld "challenge the notion that any party anywhere in South Africa can arrogate to itself the status of being representative of any king or kingdom."

Rebuilding the country would be far more difficult than freeing it from white minority rule, said the former party deputy president, Walter Sisulu, who announced his retirement after 50 years of service to the ANC. "Ours is but the first step of a long journey on the road to transfer power to the people."

Mr Sisulu's departure and the presentation of the ANC's highest honour, the Isitwalandwe, to Joe Slovo, the Communist anti-apartheid campaigner and bogeyman to the white right, were the most electric moments during the first two days of the congress. As Mr Slovo's frail body, eaten away by cancer, rose to acknowledge the award, the crowd roared "Slovo, Slovo, Slovo" and broke into the anthem of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing, which he helped to build.

It seemed to mark the passing of a generation. Among the old leaders of the ANC, only Mr Mandela has remained, certain to be re-elected as president. Under him will be the princes in waiting, Mr Mbeki, sure to be elected as party deputy president, and M r Ramaphosa, the secretary general who negotiated the interim constitution with the National Party.

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