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South Africa’s ANC begins leadership conference

South Africa's governing African National Congress (ANC) party has begun a conference to pick who will lead it into the nation's next election. President Jacob Zuma is set to face Kgalema Motlanthe for the party vote.

About 4,500 ANC delegates gathered on Sunday in the central South African city of Bloemfontein for the ruling party's national elective conference.

President Jacob Zuma, who addressed the conference later on Sunday, faces a challenge from his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, for the party leadership. However, Zuma remains the favorite.

Zuma - who was first elected as party leader in 2007 and as the South African president in 2009 - sought to instill confidence among the delegates during his opening address on Sunday.

"We want to dismiss the perceptions that our country is falling apart because of the downgrades," said  Zuma, referring to Standard and Poor's rating downgrade to BBB in October. "We continue to do our development work, we continue to plan for a recovery."

He then pledged he would fight the enduring effects of apartheid on his country, where unemployment is currently 25 percent.

"The income of the average white household remains six times that of the average African [black] household," he said, citing a 2012 report.

Fellow politicians must end infighting and corruption to help South Africa move forward, said Zuma.

Despite its popularity the ANC has faced growing criticism over its economic policies, the level of poverty in the country, and allegations of corruption.

The party was expected to announce the names of the candidates for the top six leadership positions in the evening local time.

Whoever the ANC chooses to be the party leader will likely win South Africa's presidential election in 2014, as opposition parties don't have nearly the same level of support.

The election of the 80 members of the National Executive Committee, the party's highest body, is to take place later in the week.

kms, hc/dr (AP, Reuters, dpa)