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African National Congress Opens with Rowdy Disputes


South Africa's ruling African National Congress has opened a national conference that could decide who becomes the country's next president. VOA's Delia Robertson reports from the meeting in Polokwane, the capital of Limpopo Province, the five-day conference opened with bitter divisions between incumbent President Thabo Mbeki and his party deputy, Jacob Zuma.

South African President Thabo Mbeki opened the conference with a two-hour address about the state of the country and party during the past five years. He spoke of a stable economy underpinned by consistent growth, of significant reductions in unemployment and poverty, and improvements in education, health, and other social programs

Even so, he said poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment remain high in many parts of South Africa and greater effort and commitment is needed until all South Africans can enjoy the benefits of economic advancement.

"The outcomes of this national conference must demonstrate in clear terms that our movement is ready and willing to respond to the new phase of our national democratic revolution - and sue to accomplish the goals it set," Mbeki said. "This is what the masses of our people expect. We dare not disappoint their expectations."

But Mr. Mbeki lamented trends in the ruling party toward patronage, corruption and personal enrichment at any cost. He said these activities rob from the poor, and that it is incumbent on delegates to select leaders who will regenerate, what he termed, "the moral force of leaders of the past".

"If so, what measures are needed consciously to restore the moral force of our movement, so that within the organization and throughout all levels of the state our movement is inoculated from the insidious enticements of corruption, patronage and lust for power," he asked.

Mr. Mbeki cannot run for a third term as the country's president, but is facing stiff competition from ANC deputy Jacob Zuma in seeking re-election as party leader.

If Mr. Zuma wins the leadership race, he is a strong contender to become South African president in 2009 because of the party's overwhelming support among South Africa's black majority. He was fired from the government by Mr. Mbeki after being linked to a corruption scandal, but is is going into the leadership vote Sunday with a significant lead.

The start of the meeting, and Mr. Mbeki's address, was delayed by a loud and angry dispute between party chairman Terror Lekota, who is running the conference, and Secretary-General of the Youth League Sihle Zikalala and others over the counting of ballots.

Zuma supporters oppose electronic ballot counting in the party leader election, demanding a manual count. While they argue publicly that manual counting is a tradition at ANC conferences, privately they say they are concerned that Mr. Mbeki's supporters might rig the vote.

The party conference has agreed that at least 50 percent of the new national executive committee, which may increase from 60 to 90 members, will be women.

Voting results may be known Monday.