Leaders of South Africa's ruling African National Congress Saturday made a strong display of unity at celebrations marking the party's 95th birthday. President Thabo Mbeki, addressing what is due to be his last anniversary rally as party president, ignored a succession battle raging behind the scenes and told party members to focus on eliminating poverty and underdevelopment. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from Johannesburg.

South African President Thabo Mbeki danced on stage with senior leaders of the African National Congress in a show of unity aimed at countering reports of an intensifying and sometimes bitter fight to succeed him.

Mr. Mbeki did not mention the succession battle that is reported almost daily in the news media. He said only that the task ahead is to strengthen the party's alliance with trade unions and South Africa's Communist Party, which has been marked by many public disputes in recent months.

He said, "We must prove that all of these people who are very fond of making predictions that the alliance is about to collapse, that they are wrong."

Mr. Mbeki is due to step down as A.N.C. president at its national convention later this year. The person chosen to replace him is widely expected to be the party's candidate in presidential elections in two years.

Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma was touted to be the next leader, but he was fired two years ago, after being charged with involvement in a corrupt arms deal. His case was removed from the court schedule on a technicality.

Zuma, a former guerrilla leader who is popular with trade unions and the party's youth wing, remains deputy-head of the party, however, and a contender for the presidency.

A half dozen other party leaders, including Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and several senior cabinet ministers, are also mentioned frequently along with several former politicians who are now wealthy businessmen. All deny they are competing for the job. Some people are calling for Mr. Mbeki to stand for a third term in order to defuse the situation.

The jockeying to succeed Mr. Mbeki has aggravated what analysts say are deepening divisions over the direction of the party.

The president, a moderate, has pursued policies promoting private investment and economic growth.

But he has been accused by trade unions and left-leaning party factions of favoring business and the elite at the expense of the millions of South Africans living in poverty.

Mr. Mbeki appeared to acknowledge this challenge by saying that the primary goal during the next five years is to provide jobs, education, and opportunity for the masses.

"Our central task during this phase of the national democratic revolution is to liberate our people from the scourge of poverty in all its manifestations and eliminate all of its options," he said.

South African commentators note the African National Congress retains a great deal of cohesion, part of the legacy from the decades of fighting apartheid.

But they say that the party is beginning to show some decay after being the dominant party for so long. And they conclude that the upcoming leadership transition will be an important test for Africa's oldest liberation movement.