BRUSSELS South African President Jacob Zuma dismissed critics who accuse him of being out of touch with the people and brushed aside one of his most vocal opponents, saying populist rival Julius Malema had no influence and was "just talk".
Speaking on the sidelines of a meeting with the European Union, shortly after a deal was struck to end a six-week strike at South Africa's Marikana platinum mine, Zuma laughed when asked how he responds to those who say he has lost touch with the roots of the African National Congress and its voters.
"They are actually wrong," he said in an interview at his hotel in Brussels late on Tuesday. "I am with the people on a continuous basis in huge meetings. Those people are really just telling what they think without looking at the facts. I am very much in touch with the people."
Zuma has been accused of being slow to react to the Marikana strike, even after the killing of 45 people, including 34 miners shot dead by police. He visited the site shortly after the August 16 shootings, but stayed only briefly and then went to dance at an ANC event, despite having declared a week of mourning.
Asked if he had more affinity with the mineworkers or with Cyril Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman and board member of Lonmin Plc (LMI.L) (LONJ.J), the owner of the Marikana mine, Zuma defended his relationship with the former union activist who is now worth an estimated $275 million.
"Cyril Ramaphosa that you are talking about is a national executive committee member of the ANC," he told Reuters.
"Much as he is a businessman, he's also part of the ANC. So I don't know who would be saying that we have moved from where to where, because we have been with him all the time."
Zuma, 70, has long been a divisive figure in South African politics, even since taking over as president after elections in 2009. In 2005 he was charged with rape but was acquitted, while a corruption case against him was dropped in 2009.
One of his fiercest and most persistent opponents is Malema, 31, the former head of the ANC Youth League.
Malema, who backed Zuma in a successful bid to oust former ANC leader Thabo Mbeki in 2007, has since been expelled from the ANC for his criticism and is now waging an anti-Zuma campaign with the growing support of disgruntled mineworkers.
During a nearly two-hour news conference in Johannesburg this week, Malema called Zuma a dictator and said his main interest was securing benefits for his friends and backers.
"Under Zuma, our country will plunge deeper into crisis," Malema said. "Zuma is highly compromised and lacks capacity -- everything he touches becomes a problem."
Asked how concerned he was about the criticism from Malema, who is backing deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to challenge him at the next ANC leadership contest in December, Zuma smiled dismissively.
"Malema is not in the ANC. He has been expelled. He has no influence. He has nothing to do with the ANC. He's just talking out there. He is no longer a factor, that is why he would jump to any miners that would do anything," he said.
Still, the leadership contest promises to be a heated affair. Five years ago Zuma succeeded in ousting Mbeki and now challengers are steeling themselves to take on Zuma.
Whoever becomes party leader is well placed to succeed Zuma as president after the next elections in 2014.
"We're now talking about an economic struggle," said Malema. "Not even the president can stop me. Not even death can stop me."
But Zuma brushed aside the fighting talk.
"This conference is going to move very smoothly," he told Reuters. "There isn't what the media in South Africa projects. It's not as if there is a huge clash that is coming inside the ANC, absolutely not."
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)