He also promised South Africa would work to resolve crises across the continent - from Zimbabwe to Somalia - under his party's leadership.

Economic challenge

As the party of Nelson Mandela - the anti-apartheid icon - the ANC has been in power since 1994, and is expected to do well in the election which is due around April.

However, the party has admitted the global economic meltdown presents a new hurdle for it and analysts have predicted the Congress of the People (COPE) party loyal to Thabo Mbeki, the country's previous president, could make gains on the issue.

Under Mbeki, who was controversially forced to resign his post by the ANC last year, South Africa pursued market-friendly policies that led to impressive economic growth during his nine years in office.

COPE, led by Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbeki's defence minister, has not yet unveiled its election platform, but has signalled that it will adopt similar pro-business policies.

The new party is not expected to defeat the ANC, but analysts say it could gain enough votes to block an absolute majority in parliament.

Speaking at a gathering of several hundred people in Umlazi, Kwazulu Natal province, Lekota said COPE was "like the prickly pear ... Everywhere we land, we will grow there".

Helen Zillem, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, said the ruling party was long on promises, but short on credibility.

"Every one of Jacob Zuma's utterances is contradicted by the experience in reality," she said.

In a statement on Saturday, Zillem criticised the ANC for failing to bring South Africa's high unemployment rate of around 23 per cent under control, or significantly reduce poverty in the country.