16 Feb 2018 – 21:57
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged to revive a flagging economy, restore investor confidence, create millions of new jobs and crack down on the corruption that damaged the country under the rule of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
“We should put behind us the era of diminishing trust in public institutions and weakened confidence in leaders,” Ramaphosa, 65, said in his first state-of the-nation address to parliament in Cape Town on Friday, a day after he was sworn in as the nation’s fifth post-apartheid leader. “We should put all the negativity that has dogged our country behind us because a new dawn is upon us.”
A lawyer and one of the wealthiest black South Africans, Ramaphosa took office after winning a power battle with Zuma, whose nine-year tenure was marred by scandal and policy missteps. With just over a year to go until national elections, he will have to act decisively to convince voters of his determination to rebuild an economy that’s expected to expand just 1.4 percent this year, slash a 27 percent unemployment rate and tackle endemic corruption.
Among Ramaphosa’s most pressing priorities will be to select a deputy president, a post he’d occupied since May 2014, and reshuffle the Zuma-appointed cabinet. With the national budget due to be presented to Parliament on Feb. 21, investors will be watching to see if he retains Malusi Gigaba as finance minister.
Ramaphosa made no mention of planned changes in his address, but hinted that he may trim the size of the cabinet.
“We will be initiating measures to set the country on a new path of growth, employment and transformation,” he said. “Tough decisions have to be made to close our fiscal gap, stabilize our debt and restore our state-owned enterprises to health.”
In his speech, Ramaphosa said his administration would call a summit to discuss ways to create new jobs and address mining rules that have stifled investment. He also pledged to speed up land redistribution, review the number of government departments and increase access to drugs to treat AIDS.
He promised to take decisive action to fix troubled state-owned companies, some of which don’t earn enough to fund their operational costs, and review their funding models and board appointment processes. His administration will also tackle leadership problems at the National Prosecuting Authority, he said.
“This is the year in which we turn the tide of corruption in our public institutions,” he said.
A lawyer who helped broker an end to white-minority rule and draft South Africa’s first democratic constitution, Ramaphosa won control of the ruling African National Congress in December. Zuma quit late Wednesday under pressure from the party’s new leaders a year before the end of his second term.
Ramaphosa thanked Zuma for his service to the country and for the way he had handled the transition — remarks that drew boos from the chamber. Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and F.W. de Klerk watched the address from the public gallery, but Zuma didn’t attend.
Ramaphosa will need to rebuild national cohesion, which was badly eroded under Zuma’s rule, and provide greater certainty about mining and land ownership policy, according to Mark Rosenberg, the chief executive officer of geopolitical risk firm GeoQuant. While Ramaphosa should be able to cement his control over the ANC and the government and ensure it is run more effectively, the task will be formidable, he said.
“This is not going to be an easy transition,” Rosenberg said by phone from New York. “South Africa post-Zuma is a weaker state and a far more divided polity than it was before.”
The initial signs are promising. Ramaphosa has overseen the appointment of a new board at the state power utility, which has been mired in graft allegations, while 10 suspects linked to the Gupta family, who are in business with one of Zuma’s sons, have been arrested in connection with the looting of money from a taxpayer-funded dairy project.
“We should not expect change to happen overnight,” Peter Hain, a former U.K. cabinet minister, who has campaigned against graft in South Africa where he was born, said in an interview in Johannesburg. “The South African economy is bequeath with corruption that needs to be worked out. Cyril is the perfect leader to do this, though. It’s a momentous moment for South Africa, that brings new opportunity.”