Zuma dismisses fear of lurch to left

JOHANNESBURG – Ruling party leader Jacob Zuma on Friday dismissed fears that South Africa's economic policy would lurch to the left after elections next month and said a new dissident group would have no impact.

In a Reuters interview, expected to be his last before the April 22 elections, Zuma said the ruling ANC was likely to increase its majority and the new COPE party posed no threat to its dominance since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Zuma has strong support from the Communist Party and trade unions, leading to some suggestions he will shift away from the business-friendly policies of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki when he becomes state president, as expected, after the vote.

But he said the ANC had been backed by unions and the left since the 1950s and there was nothing new or unique in their support for him.

"The ANC stands for the interests of the broader society, not for the interest of one section of society or ideology for that matter."

He said South Africa would always be attractive to foreign investors.

"We are a rich country, we have got the resources. No-one in the private sector is going to run away from us, they are going to come because they have to do business."

But he added: "We are not shying away from the point that our policies are poor and worker-biased." 

Mbeki, ousted by Zuma last year, was accused of not moving fast enough to bring the benefits of black rule to the country’s poor.

The new COPE party, formed by ANC dissidents, has been seen as the biggest challenge to the formerly monolithic ruling party. But Zuma rubbished it as irrelevant.

"As far as the ANC is concerned, COPE is not a factor. There is no need for us to talk about COPE."

ANC WILL REMAIN DOMINANT

He said COPE (Congress of the People) would make no inroads into the ANC vote. Asked if the new party would reduce the two-thirds majority that enables the ANC to change the constitution, Zuma replied: "Not at all…we will actually increase it."

The ANC won 70 percent of the vote in the last election in 2004.

He said COPE had made a series of political mistakes since it was founded last year and voters would not take it seriously.

"The first mistake they made is to think that in seven months time they could establish a new organisation, campaign and win elections against a party that has been there almost close to a hundred years."

He said defectors were returning to the ANC "in droves".  

"Ever since COPE people emerged, there is nothing they have said that will attract a thinking person," Zuma said.

The South African leader said Zimbabwe was beginning to stabilise under a new national unity government but this was only a starting point.

He criticised Western powers for holding back aid because of their opposition to President Robert Mugabe remaining in power. In the highest level African criticism of this stance, Zuma said it was unfair to a population suffering from the devastation of the once-prosperous country’s economy.

Zuma would not comment on reports that state prosecutors are close to dropping major graft charges that have plagued him for several years. But he said he had always acted within the law in challenging the charges.

Zuma said the ANC would toughen policies on crime in South Africa, saying the judicial system had been too "user-friendly" to criminals. Africa’s biggest economy has some of the world’s worst rates of violent crime outside a war zone.

"The criminal must know that once you commit a crime, it is going to be tough for you…we are talking about sharpening the laws, the law must bite, particularly because there is no capital punishment," he said.

The death penalty is banned by South Africa’s constitution.

Zuma said the global economic crisis had hit South Africa like the rest of the world but tight financial discipline and regulation of banks had acted as a "shock absorber".

A quick and concerted response by government, private business and trade unions had lessened the impact, he said.