I'm no racist, whites are welcome, says South Africa's Zuma

CAPE TOWN (AFP) - South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday denied that he was a racist and assured white people that they should not fear being "chased" out of Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation".

The President also said that a new law preventing foreign ownership of land in South Africa applied only to agricultural properties and not to private residences.

Zuma was reacting to concerns by some white South Africans after he told a rally of his ruling African National Congress that all South Africa's troubles began when the first whites landed more than 300 years ago.

"South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white," he told parliament, quoting the ANC's Freedom Charter, which was adopted during the fight to end the white racist system of apartheid.

Breaking away from his written speech in response to debate on his State of the Nation Address last week, he said: "We are a rainbow nation, nobody will chase you away. There should be no fear."

But, he said, he would never stop talking about history because South Africa's children should know the country's past to ensure that mistakes were not repeated.

Zuma's off the cuff remarks won enthusiastic applause from an audience.

It was a redemption of a kind for the President, who has been under fire over the past week since security forces were called into parliament to evict lawmakers who disrupted his annual address by accusing him of corruption.

He said the government was committed to freedom of speech and pledged that the cutting of mobile phone signals in parliament ahead of his address - a move which infuriated reporters and opposition lawmakers - would never happen again.

Addressing the uproar in parliament for the first time, he called for all parties to preserve the dignity of the national assembly, saying "I see no reason why we should get angry".

He joked about the insults that flew fast and furious during and after the debate - when he was called a "hooligan" and a "broken man" - saying he didn't care if people called him a dog because he knew he was not a dog - he did not look like one and had no tail.

Radical lawmakers of the Economic Freedom Fighters, who led the disruption last Thursday, remained silent and seated throughout his speech.

But their leader, Julius Malema, has pledged to confront Zuma again over alleged corruption when he returns to parliament for presidential question time on March 11.