BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa’s ruling ANC put its new No. 2 Cyril Ramaphosa at the head of a charm offensive on Friday as it sought to reassure both investors and a restless public it would tackle economic inequality without recourse to wholescale nationalization.
Days after his appointment as party deputy to President Jacob Zuma, who was re-elected ANC chief this week, the anti-apartheid hero and businessman laid out the party’s strategic priorities.
Appearing at a business breakfast with Zuma and other ANC leaders elected at a conference in Bloemfontein, Ramaphosa stressed the ruling party backed a mixed economy model.
But he added the state would intervene to ensure the country’s wealth was better shared.
“Within a mixed economy, the state has a role to play. It intervenes and the private sector also has a role,” Ramaphosa said, wearing like Zuma a red tie with his dark business suit.
The return of Ramaphosa to the ANC leadership will allow the party to capitalize on his experience and reputation for integrity. His popularity rests on both his history as an anti-apartheid mineworkers’ champion in the 1980s and his current pro-business credentials as South Africa’s second wealthiest black entrepreneur.
The ANC had its 100th anniversary this year. But Nelson Mandela’s liberation movement has been split by feuding and has faced a groundswell of popular anger against graft, cronyism and widespread poverty and unemployment in Africa’s biggest economy.
Deadly strikes swept the mines this year in the worst labor violence since the end of apartheid in 1994. It led to damaging credit downgrades for South Africa and questions whether 70-year-old Zuma, who has faced a slew of corruption and personal scandals, can effectively lead the party and country.
Ramaphosa warmed to his new role on Friday as he finessed the ANC’s main economic policy takeaway from Bloemfontein. This was a decision to shun “classic, wholesale nationalization” but for the state to intervene selectively in the economy where necessary in key areas such as mining and infrastructure.
Rejecting charges the ANC was “confused” on nationalization, whose defenders at the conference were soundly defeated, Ramaphosa invoked the party’s 1955 Freedom Charter that declares “the people shall share in the wealth of the country”.
“Now the ANC’s duty is to make sure that is fulfilled, and fulfilling that would mean that in certain areas the state intervenes,” he said, giving the examples of a state mining company set up by the government and intervention to ensure that prices of drugs for HIV/AIDS sufferers remain affordably low.
Ramaphosa’s elevation was welcomed in business circles.
Moody’s, which with another credit rating agency has punished South Africa for its mining and leadership woes, said the ANC platform looked “more investor- and business-friendly than had generally been anticipated prior to the conference”.
South Africa’s Business Day newspaper said in an editorial: “Mr. Ramaphosa’s re-entry into party politics represents a victory for those dealing and negotiating in the real world, rather than in the world of ideological illusion.”
But the Chamber of Mines and Moody’s said questions remained about how the government would intervene in the mining sector, and what additional taxes it might levy there. The ANC has also raised the idea of export curbs on minerals.
It also remained to be seen whether Ramaphosa, who has maintained a wealthy lifestyle in recent years far from his origins in the anti-apartheid workers’ struggle, can connect with the mass of voters who are poor and unemployed.
His comeback puts him in line for a possible future bid for the South African presidency currently held by Zuma who, if he remains the party candidate, is virtually assured of re-election as head of state in the next national vote in 2014.
At this week’s ANC conference, Zuma crushed a half-hearted leadership bid from Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, whose challenge grouped a loose alliance of opponents of the Zuma presidency. This included advocates of more radical policies such as nationalization and seizure of white-owned farm land.
Asked about the ANC’s future ideological direction, Zuma replied: “Ideologically, we want a prosperous South Africa.”
He also made clear he would not immediately replace Deputy President Motlanthe with Ramaphosa in the cabinet.
Zuma, who took the party leadership from former President Thabo Mbeki at a 2007 ANC conference, acknowledged one of the party’s biggest tasks was to address the popular clamor for better services, improved livelihoods and more jobs.
“There’s a huge backlog there we have to deal with,” he said.
Although Zuma denied any internal purge of top figures who had opposed him, some of these, such as Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, were dropped from the new ANC National Executive Committee (NEC).
Re-elected ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe made clear the party took a dim view of attempts to divide it, for example from expelled former Youth League leader Julius Malema. “If you mess up the ANC, the ANC messes you up,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sherilee Lakmidas and Stella Mapenzauswa; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Ed Stoddard and Andrew Heavens