South Africa is not "falling apart" and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) can run the continent's biggest economy, President Jacob Zuma said on Sunday, as he sought to dispel the concerns of rating agencies and investors about sluggish growth.
In his opening address to an ANC conference to choose its leadership for the next five years, Zuma said two downgrades by international ratings agencies this year did not mean South Africa was in trouble.
"We want to dismiss the perceptions that our country is falling apart because of the downgrades," he said. "We continue to do our development work, we continue to plan for a recovery."
At the conference this week held in the central city of Bloemfontein, Zuma, 70, is expected to garner enough support to head off a challenge to his party chief post from Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
Retaining the ANC leadership puts Zuma in pole position to secure a second five-year term as South Africa's president in the next national election in 2014.
Spicing up the contest for top ANC jobs, former mineworkers' leader and anti-apartheid hero Cyril Ramaphosa, now one of South Africa's richest men, has agreed to stand for the post of ANC deputy president currently held by Motlanthe.
"He (Ramaphosa) is running," a senior party official told Reuters on Sunday.
In his speech, Zuma said the government was relying on its long-term National Development Plan as its strategy for undoing the "glaring and deep" inequalities left by decades of white-minority apartheid rule, which ended in 1994.
"Today, the ratings agencies and investors are asking whether the ANC can continue to manage this economy so that we can grow, create jobs, manage our debt and provide policy certainty," Zuma said.
"Yes, the ANC will continue to provide strong economic leadership and steer our economy boldly."
South Africa's economy is forecast to grow 2.5 percent this year, well short of the 7 percent the government says is needed to make a serious dent in 25 percent unemployment.
Zuma also called for an end to internal faction-fighting and corruption in Nelson Mandela's 100-year-old liberation movement, which faces accusations from critics that it has lost its moral compass under the scandal-hit Zuma presidency.
Party insiders said Ramaphosa's inclusion in the ANC leadership team could help to restore the party's image.
This has been undermined by growing popular disillusionment over the ANC government's failure to tackle still widespread poverty and unemployment and over persistent problems of graft, cronyism and mismanagement.
Ramaphosa, now 60, won international renown as a campaigner against apartheid when he led a mineworkers' strike in 1987, and he also helped draft South Africa's post-apartheid constitution before becoming one of the country's most successful and respected businessmen.