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SAfrica's Zuma seeks to start political comeback

Written by: Staff
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JOHANNESBURG, May 9 (Reuters) Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma today said he was willing to run for election as South Africa's next president, wasting no time launching a political comeback attempt after his acquittal on rape charges.

Zuma told a news conference he was immediately resuming his duties at the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which alone would decide whether to nominate him to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009.

''Personally over the years I've never refused a task by the ANC and I'm not about to do so now,'' Zuma told a news conference after yesterday's verdict in a trial that opened deep divisions within the ANC leadership.

Zuma sought to limit damage from the case, issuing a public apology for having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and declaring himself a committed supporter of women's rights.

''I erred in having unprotected sex. I should have known better and I should have acted with greater caution and responsibility,'' said Zuma, who once led South Africa's official response to its devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic.

''For this I unconditionally apologise to all the people of this country.'' Political analysts say despite his acquittal the 64-year-old Zuma will have an uphill task to regain his former political prominence, particularly given that he faces a potentially far more damaging trial on separate corruption charges in July.

''This is not the make-or-break of Zuma's political career. The more serious one casting a big shadow over his career is the next big case to come,'' said Phillip Wenzel, a lecturer in politics at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.

CONSPIRACY THEORY Zuma portrayed himself as undaunted today, telling reporters he was confident the South African public would see through what he again described as a shadowy political campaign against him.

''The campaign is clear, I don't think anyone does not see there is a campaign,'' Zuma said, again declining to specify who he believed was behind the alleged plot.

Both the rape charges and the corruption case have fuelled accusations by Zuma's supporters that he is being politically sidelined by his enemies in the ANC -- often seen as shorthand for Mbeki himself.

But asked if he thought Mbeki was behind his troubles, Zuma replied: ''No, I don't see anything in that direction ... but I don't think it's a matter I want to discuss.'' Mbeki sacked Zuma as national deputy president last year after he was implicated in the corruption case, and has since said only that the law should be allowed to take its course.

A veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle who like Nelson Mandela spent time imprisoned on Robben Island, Zuma remains popular with the ANC rank-and-file and particularly among left-leaning groups such as the party's youth league and its union and Communist Party allies.

That popularity will be further tested by the corruption case. But if he wins another acquittal there some analysts say he could be a powerful candidate -- or at least a kingmaker -- at the ANC's leadership conference in late 2007.

The ANC won two-thirds of the vote in South Africa's last elections in 2004 and its presidential candidate is all but assured of following Mbeki in the top job.

Zuma declined to say if he backed Mbeki's recent suggestion that South Africa's next president should be a woman, saying this was an internal party matter.

''I think any member of the ANC has a right to have his or her view about this matter ..(but) I wouldn't want to discuss the matter here,'' he said.

REUTERS OM BD1918

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