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New ANC Leader Zuma Seeks to Mend Fences

In his first address as newly elected African National Congress party president, Jacob Zuma sought to build fences and reassure South Africa on economic policy. But as VOA's Delia Robertson reports from Johannesburg, the speech was somewhat overshadowed by South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, which said a decision is near on whether to prosecute Zuma on corruption charges.

Appearing somewhat nervous, Jacob Zuma delivered a conciliatory and reassuring televised message to delegates present and also to the wider South African community. He first sought to mend fences with South African President Thabo Mbeki, against whom he fought a fierce battle to become leader of the African National Congress.

"I have known the man, the brother, the friend, and indeed my leader," he said. "I must confess that I never thought that the two of us would one day compete for the same position in the ANC. However, contesting positions among comrades does not make us enemies. We are comrades, we belong to the same family, the African National Congress."

Zuma said he would not be pushing for any sea changes in government policy in the coming months, noting that in any event the ruling party's policies have always been decided at its National Conferences.

"Let me reiterate that decisions with regards to policies in the ANC are taken by conference, and not by an individual," he said. "This has been surprising me comrades, because as the conference was proceeding after my election some of my friends here were asking me, what is going to be your policy. And the conference is busy concluding policy."

Zuma also addressed some of South Africa's major challenges, promising redoubled attention to combating crime; and to reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS.

Zuma did not mention the announcement earlier in the day by the National Prosecuting Authority that it is close to deciding whether to reinstate corruption charges against him.

Last year, prosecutors were ordered by the courts to withdraw corruption charges against Jacob Zuma because they had sought too many postponements. They were told to return only when ready to proceed to trial.

NPA spokesperson Tlali Tlali says investigations have reached an advanced stage.

"On the basis of the investigations carried out thus far, enough ground has been covered to a point where information or evidence suggests that there is prosecutable case. The NPA is yet to make the decision on this matter; and that decision is imminent," said Tlali.

The investigation followed the conviction of Zuma's then-financial advisor on corruption charges in 2005. The judge in that case said Zuma intervened to secure business contracts for his advisor and that the only way he could do that was to use his political office.

Zuma says the allegations are part of a conspiracy to keep him from higher office, and that the money he got was a repayable loan between good friends.

Zuma seemed to relax at the end of his address, launching into an animated rendition of what has become his personal anthem, the anti-apartheid struggle song "Umshini Wam", "Bring Me My Machine Gun."