Cyril Ramaphosa, the new leader of South Africa’s ruling party, has vowed to crack down on the corruption that has weakened the African National Congress.
“Billions of rands have been illegally diverted to individuals,” Ramaphosa said in a speech celebrating the party’s 106th anniversary.
It was his first major public address since he was elected to lead Africa’s oldest liberation party in December, replacing scandal-prone president Jacob Zuma, who was booed upon his arrival at the event, as leader. Ramaphosa is likely to be elected the next president in 2019.
Public frustration over corruption allegations against Zuma deeply split the ANC in recent months, and Ramaphosa has been pressured by opposition parties and some ANC members to recall Zuma as president.
Ramaphosa, South Africa’s current deputy president, is instead stressing the need for unity. He said the ANC had become deeply divided through factionalism, patronage, corruption and competition for resources. “At the centre of our efforts this year is unity,” he added.
This week, on the eve of a high-level ANC meeting that had threatened to discuss his fate, Zuma acknowledged the pressure, announcing he was appointing an inquiry commission to look into the corruption allegations. “This matter cannot wait any longer,” he said.
On Saturday Ramaphosa thanked Zuma for the decision. “Corruption in state-owned enterprises and other public institutions has undermined our government’s programs to address poverty and unemployment,” he said. “We are going to confront corruption and state capture in all its forms.”
The ANC has been in power since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, but voters have grown disillusioned with the party of Nelson Mandela under Zuma’s tenure. South Africa’s economy briefly dipped into recession last year and unemployment hovers close to 30%.
In 2016 municipal elections, the ANC lost control of the commercial hub of Johannesburg and the administrative capital, Pretoria, for the first time. Observers have warned that if support continues to dwindle, the party faces the possibility of losing its national majority in 2019 and having to govern as part of a coalition.
Ramaphosa pledged to address the country’s lingering inequality through a programme of “radical socio-economic transformation,” including free higher education for poor and working-class students, a national minimum wage and land expropriation without compensation.
“We aim to restore our focus on building an economy in which all South Africans can flourish, an economy which benefits the people as a whole rather than a privileged few,” he said.