ORIA (AFP) - New South African President Jacob Zuma seized on Nelson Mandelas legacy of reconciliation, vowing in his inaugural speech Saturday to defend democracy and reunite the country after years of divisive politics.
Zuma took office in a glitzy ceremony that capped a dramatic political comeback after his ascent to power was nearly derailed by corruption claims and bitter in-fighting within the ruling ANC.
His fierce rivalry with former president Thabo Mbeki, Mandelas immediate heir, sparked a dramatic power struggle within the party. Zuma ultimately took control in December 2007 and pushed the ANC to sack Mbeki as head of state nine months later, provoking a breakaway from the former liberation movement.
Despite the dissent, he led the party to a thumping victory in general elections on April 22.
With Mandela and Mbeki on hand for his swearing-in Saturday, Zuma promised to keep South Africa on the path of reconciliation laid by South Africas first black president.
He made reconciliation the central theme of his term of office. We will not deviate from that nation building task. Thank you Mandiba for showing us the way, Zuma said.
We must forge a partnership for reconstruction, development and progress. In this partnership there is a place for all South Africans, black and white, he said.
Zuma also made a defence of democracy, political freedoms and free speech as he stood before nearly 30 visiting leaders, including Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi, Zimbabwes President Robert Mugabe and King Mswati III of Swaziland, Africas last absolute monarch.
We must safeguard the independence and integrity of those institutions tasked with the defence of democracy and must act as a check on the abuse of power, he said.
Zuma was accompanied to the stage by the first of his three current wives, Sizakele Khumalo, and after his official speech he went down to the lawns to address 50,000 cheering supporters.
The 67-year-old Zuma was elected president by parliament on Wednesday, after the ANC swept to victory in general elections two weeks ago, despite frustrations at poor public services after 15 years as the ruling party.
Zuma has vowed to get straight down to work with a cabinet he will unveil on Sunday to tackle his pledges for rapid improvements to education, unemployment and the alarming crime situation.
He has also promised to work quickly to boost limping public services while bolstering the economy against a looming recession.
Speculation has been rife over whom he will appoint to his cabinet, after his predecessor Mbeki was criticised for keeping on lacklustre ministers.
He also faces pressure from leftist backers who supported him throughout an eight-year prosecution for corruption, but has warned that posts will not necessarily be kept for friends.
Portfolios being closely watched are: finance, with the popular Trevor Manuel tipped for a cabinet redeployment; health, a one-time fiasco of AIDS denialism, only recently revived under Barbara Hogan; and education, which is likely to be split in two.
A polygamist with 19 children and a murky history with the courts, Zuma embraces his Zulu tradition with a passion. After his swearing in, a traditional praise singer wearing animal skins sang Zumas virtues.
He only narrowly dodged a corruption trial when prosecutors dropped the charges against him just weeks before the elections.
But his supporters were deterred by neither his legal troubles nor the wintry rains that cleared just before the ceremony began.
Rain is a sign of good luck, in African culture when it rains during your ceremony it means thing are going to go well for you, said an elated Sipho Zondi who travelled from Zumas home province with six friends by train.
So in this case it means Zuma is going to have a good term in office.