South Africa's ruling African National Congress has opened a major meeting aimed at preparing the party platform for elections in two years. The conference is to debate economic and social policies, but attention has been focused on political jockeying ahead of a congress later this year that will elect the head of the movement. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from Johannesburg.

Fifteen hundred stalwarts of the African National Congress opened with song and dance a policy conference pledging to do more to fight poverty, inequality and racism.

President Thabo Mbeki in his opening speech quickly moved to quash what he called a barrage of propaganda that the congress would be sidetracked by a battle for the party leadership.

"This Policy Conference that has absolutely nothing to do with who is or will be a leader of the African National Congress," he said.

Mr. Mbeki this year completes his second term as ANC president. A half dozen party leaders have been identified as potential candidates for the job that to date has led to the presidency of the nation.

Mr. Mbeki can run for a third term as party president but is prevented by the constitution from running for a third term as president of the country.

In his speech, the South African president reminded delegates that the primary mission of the ANC is to work for the emancipation of the black majority, working people, the poor, women, youth and the disabled.

He said in the 13 years since the end of apartheid, South Africa had made important strides in removing what he characterized as the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. But he acknowledged that much remains to be done.

"Objectively and practically, it is not possible to solve problems that have accumulated over 350 years in the mere 13 years of our democracy," he said.

South Africa under Mr. Mbeki's leadership has shown strong economic growth, created a million jobs and produced a rising black middle class. But unemployment remains high, at 25 percent, and nearly half of the population lives in poverty.

The ANC is under increasing pressure to distribute the economic gains more evenly. The pressure has strained its alliance with trade unions and the Communist party.

However, Mr. Mbeki said each group took strength from the others and predicted their alliance would survive.

"The objective reality in our country is that the National Democratic Revolution cannot succeed if it does not contain among its motive forces our country's socialist, trade union and civic movements," said Mr. Mbeki.

As the president spoke, several dozen demonstrators outside the hall reminded party delegates that the country was in the fourth week of a strike by public servants that has crippled public schools and health care centers.

The government last Friday presented its final offer and suspended negotiations. Although some unions have said they are willing to suspend the strike, others are pressing for more concessions, primarily a wage increase above the government's offer of 7.5 percent.