* Zuma places economic growth at centre of policy speech
* S.Africa aiming for 5 pct economic growth by 2019
* Promises push to improve miners' living conditions
(Releads after speech)
By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN, June 17 South African President Jacob
Zuma put the need to boost the economy at the centre of the
first major policy speech of his second term on Tuesday, saying
he hoped to lift annual growth to 5 percent by 2019.
Promising "radical socio-economic transformation" 20 years
after the end of apartheid, Zuma also said he would take direct
responsibility for improving conditions in the mining industry,
which has been beset by two years of crippling strikes.
"We have set this target during a difficult period. The
economy has grown below its potential over the last three years
and many households are going through difficulties," he said in
his first State of the Nation address since a May election.
"The slow growth has been caused in part by the global
economic slowdown and secondly by domestic conditions, such as
the prolonged and at times violent strikes, and also the
shortage of energy," he said.
Zuma's focus on growth and tackling 25 percent unemployment
followed a double blow last week from credit-rating agencies
that underlined the precarious health of Africa's most advanced
economy, which contracted in the first quarter.
South Africa had long been the continent's biggest economy,
but Nigeria claimed that title earlier this year.
The rand firmed slightly after Zuma spoke. Although
the 72-year-old's delivery was at times faltering, it was no
worse than usual, allaying concerns about his health after being
hospitalised this month with fatigue.
Zuma was quickly discharged after "routine tests", his
office said a week ago. However, he handed over the reins to his
deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, for five days to give himself time to
recover from the rigours of preparing for the May 7 election.
The African National Congress (ANC) won a 62 percent
majority in the vote, its fifth but also its narrowest victory
since the end of white-minority government in 1994.
A five-month platinum strike is dragging the economy towards
recession and the impact on broader growth and government
finances prompted Fitch to put South Africa on a negative
outlook and Standard & Poor's to cut its credit rating on
Zuma, whose new mining minister stepped in to mediate wage
talks, said he would take personal charge of efforts to address
poor living conditions in the mines, one of the more acute
legacies of white-minority rule.
"The process will now be led by the President. We will
implement the undertaking to build housing and other services to
revitalise mining towns, as part of the October 2012 agreement
between business, government and labour," he said.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS?
Overall, the speech expanded on Zuma's previous reliance on
a National Development Plan (NDP) drawn up in his first term as
South Africa's sole blue-print for broad long-term growth.
His comments about economic growth are likely to encourage
those who had been waiting for signs that the ANC would try to
ease the mistrust between the government, unions and private
sector that are threatening the plan's success.
"Does the government want to bargain with the business
sector and other interests to chart a new path for the economy,
or does it believe it can fix its problems on its own?"
political analyst Stephen Friedman wrote in the Business Day
newspaper ahead of the speech.
Standard & Poor's downgrade means South Africa could even
lose its coveted investment grade credit rating if growth fails
to pick up.
Its outlook is stable for now, indicating the agency is not
looking at cutting its rating again soon but investors will want
reassurance the government is committed to steering the economy
back to health.
The economy has been further strained by a cold snap at the
start of the southern hemisphere winter and outages at some
power generation units, which led to temporary rolling blackouts
to prevent the already stretched national grid from collapsing.
(Writing and additional reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by
Susan Fenton/Ruth Pitchford)