Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) _ South African President Jacob Zuma acknowledged Sunday that corruption and violence have marred the image of his African National Congress as it changed from a liberation movement to governing party, but called on members to again support him to be its leader.

Zuma addressed some 4,000 delegates as they gathered for the start of the party’s Mangaung conference, being held in the city also known as Bloemfontein. There, members will decide whether Zuma, its 70-year-old leader long trailed by corruption allegations and questions about his personal life, should remain its leader or if his quiet deputy Kgalema Motlanthe should take charge.

Despite the challenge, Zuma still remains the favorite to lead the party and likely become South Africa’s president after the nation’s 2014 elections, as opposition parties don’t garner the same support in this country of 50 million people. However, his sometimes candid comments seemed aimed at assuaging critics within the ANC, while blaming “alien” practices and outsiders for many of its current woes.

“We want to dismiss the perception that the country is falling apart,” Zuma said, touching on its economic woes. “The ANC will continue to provide strong economic leadership and steer our economy boldly and we do have a plan to grow the economy and grow jobs.”

The run-up to the conference has seen disrupted provincial meetings, threats and shootings of local ANC officials, as corruption allegations trail from the smallest local government to Zuma at the top. That has many wondering whether the ANC still remains the party of reconciliation and racial fellowship that icon Nelson Mandela and others envisioned.

Zuma has wide support among Zulus, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, as well as from a loyal cadre of government and party officials.

But many in the public have grown disenchanted with Zuma, who former President Thabo Mbeki fired as deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in the corruption trial of close friend and financial adviser Schabir Shaik over a 1999 arms deal. Newspapers have written numerous articles recently about the millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made to Zuma’s private homestead. Zuma has also faced accusations, by the media, of being unable to manage his personal finances and relying on friends and colleagues to bail him out, including, allegedly, Mandela himself.

Zuma has faced criticism over his sexual activity. He was put on trial for raping a family friend, and acquitted, in 2006. He also outraged AIDS activists by testifying that he had unprotected, consensual sex with the HIV-positive woman and then took a shower in the belief that it would protect him from AIDS. In the time since, however, Zuma has publicized his own HIV test results and urged the nation to practice safe sex.

Zuma has been married six times _ he currently has four wives, as his Zulu culture allows. He has 21 children, and acknowledged in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.

He and the ANC have also been criticized for strikes that overtook the nation, particularly in the mining sector, and the handling of violence at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana that saw more than 46 people killed and sparked violence and labor unrest at other mines.

His main competition in the ANC now is a man who largely acted for weeks as though he didn’t want to accept the challenge: Motlanthe, 63, the nation’s vice president and a former union leader. Several provinces and the ANC’s youth arm nominated Motlanthe, who only Thursday confirmed through his spokesman he had accepted his candidacy.

Motlanthe served as a caretaker president for South Africa from September 2008 to May 2009, after Zuma ousted Mbeki as leader of the ANC in tight party election. Motlanthe also offers what appears to be the opposite of Zuma’s leadership _ a quiet, pensive and technocratic approach that differs from Zuma’s crowd-pleasing comments and dancing.

While the ANC largely doesn’t have a history of candidates publicly campaigning, some analysts say Motlanthe held back on accepting the nomination because he was not sure of adequate support from rank-and-file party members to unseat Zuma.


Jon Gambrell can be reached at .