Jacob Zuma, South Africa's former Deputy President and the man many predict will succeed Thabo Mbeki as President, has dismissed fears he is a new Robert Mugabe in the making - a populist who will pander to the mob, push white farmers off the land and introduce hard-line, left-wing economic policies.
Before addressing a rally in Durban, Zuma, 64, rejected comparisons with the Zimbabwean leader.
"As a member and a leader of the ANC all I do is carry out ANC policies," he said. "How could you have an individual who would become such a monster? The ANC system does not allow for that kind of thing."
But he defended Mugabe's controversial land reforms programme. Zuma said he could not give "a yes or no answer" to whether he supported Mugabe but made clear his sympathy for the view that Britain is to blame for the crisis in Zimbabwe, because it did not live up to its promises to fund land reform.
"For 20 years that was not addressed, and after 20 years Mugabe moved," he said. "So it is not a simple matter ... It has been a critical issue and people should have known that one day the issue would explode as it has done."
He also defended South Africa's policy of "quiet diplomacy" towards its northern neighbour.
"Other people have adopted the policy of criticising Mugabe from a distance, which only makes him more angry.
We are the only ones who have engaged him on the issues."
He denied the huge numbers of economic refugees pouring over the border each day were proof of the policy's failure. "Refugees from Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland pour into South Africa every day. Zimbabwe is not an exception because there are economic problems in these countries."
Looking relaxed and flashing his trademark smile, Zuma demonstrated the warmth and charm that have helped this unschooled cowherd from a rural backwater in KwaZulu Natal rise to be one of the dominant - and, some say, sinister - forces in South African politics.
A key figure in the struggle against apartheid, he was imprisoned for 10 years with Nelson Mandela. Yet his political career has been more controversial. Sacked last year as Deputy President over allegations that he accepted bribes from a French arms company, Zuma has refused to lie down and instead mounted a campaign to portray himself as a victim of a conspiracy to prevent his becoming president of the ANC in party elections next year.
Whoever wins that contest is almost certain to become President when Mbeki steps down in 2009. He denied suggestions that the party was split on tribal lines, with his own backers drawn from the Zulu tribe and those of Mbeki from his Xhosa tribe. The passionate support of his followers sprang from a natural sense of justice, not tribal or political rivalry.
Even the admission that he had unprotected sex with a 31-year-old HIV positive woman who accused him of rape - a charge of which he was cleared this year - has failed to dent his appeal. When the corruption charges were also struck from the roll in September, it appeared Zuma was unstoppable.
But the business establishment is deeply suspicious of him. Azar Jammine, the head economist of the analysts Econometrix, said he knew of many white business people who said they would pull out of South Africa if Zuma was elected. They fear his economic policy would be dictated by his trade union and Communist Party supporters.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has suggested that Zuma should pull out of the presidential race, citing his sexual irresponsibility and the mob antics of his supporters. Zuma said only, "I respect him and I don't think I want to politick with him on this."
As to allegations raised during the trial of his former financial adviser Scahbir Shaik - jailed this month for fraud and corruption - that he had been bailed out by Shaik because his own finances were in a terrible mess and was therefore unfit to be President, Zuma said "no president, no leader in the world" had been subject to this kind of examination.
"I've been in the ANC for decades," he said. "I've had many responsibilities at different levels, including responsibility to handle money and nowhere could you find a record that I was unable to handle money.
"In any case, if one day the ANC says this man will be President, people are not judged by how they manage their personal finances. It is on their understanding of the policies and their responsibilities towards the country."
Zuma's supporters are reported to be targeting weak ANC branches with propaganda material in an effort to build up greater support for his coming campaign.
Many South Africans are disappointed that huge numbers of people still live in poverty, despite the ANC's 12 years in power.
But Zuma said the ANC had lived up to its promises. "You cannot resolve in a decade the problems of centuries.
"I think the ANC has brought stability and hope to people who never had it before."By Stephen Bevan