CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa will face “tough decisions” as it works to repair its economy after years of stagnation, new President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a sober address on Friday that sought to draw a line under the turbulent rule of his predecessor Jacob Zuma.
Hailing a “new dawn” a day after his inauguration, he promised to fight corruption, which had weakened the state-owned enterprises in Africa’s most industrialized economy, and to trim a bloated cabinet.
Ramaphosa said his government was committed to “policy certainty and consistency”, in contrast to Zuma, who was criticized for policy shifts and unpredictable cabinet changes that rocked domestic financial markets and confounded investors.
The 65-year-old was sworn in as head of state on Thursday after Zuma reluctantly resigned on orders of the ANC.
“This is the year in which we will turn the tide of corruption in our public institutions,” Ramaphosa said in his first State of the Nation address.
“We are determined to build a society defined by decency and integrity, that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources, nor the theft by corporate criminals of the hard-earned savings of ordinary people,” he added.
Ramaphosa’s election as president, which was unopposed in the parliament, has prompted a wave of optimism among South Africans hungry for change after nine years of economic stagnation and corruption scandals. Zuma denies all wrongdoing.
“Tough decisions have to be made to close our fiscal gap, stabilize our debt and restore our state-owned enterprises to health,” Ramaphosa said. He promised to make job creation a priority in 2018.
South Africa's rand ZAR=D3 rallied soon after Ramaphosa started his address, trading near its three-year best.
Financial markets have rallied since Ramaphosa took over from Zuma as ANC leader in December, as investors warmed to his pledges to woo overseas investment.
He thanked Zuma for the way he had approached recent events. Facing waning electoral support for his party, Ramaphosa needs to avoid alienating ANC members still loyal to the 75-year-old former president.
In a direct appeal to poorer black voters - the core of the ANC’s support - Ramaphosa said he would aim to speed up the transfer of land to black people. Two decades after the end of apartheid, the ANC is under pressure to redress racial disparities in land ownership where whites own most of the land.
Ramaphosa said he pursue a policy of “radical economic transformation” that will speed up expropriation of land without compensation, but said this should be done in a way that increases agricultural production and improves food security.
Ramaphosa said mining had potential for growth and jobs.
“We need to see mining as a sunrise industry,” he said.
South Africa’s mining industry has been a major employer and contributed 7.7 percent to gross domestic product in 2016. The sector also accounts for 25 percent of exports in Africa’s most industrialized economy. South Africa’s GDP is estimated to grow by around 1 percent this year.
Africa’s most developed economy needs faster economic growth if it is to reduce high unemployment - currently at 27 percent - and alleviate widespread poverty that has persisted since the end of white minority rule in 1994.
The leader of the opposition, and head of the Democratic Alliance party, Mmusi Maimane, said the president was reading from an old script.
“We could have gotten more bolder action today, but I heard more of the same stuff,” Maimane said.
The leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF), Julius Malema, said he welcomed the commitments to shrink the cabinet and take back land. “He (Ramaphosa) has a lot of ideas but no plan of how to go about it, but let’s give the benefit of doubt,” Malema said.
Ramaphosa, a former union leader who played an important role in talks to end apartheid, is expected to announce major cabinet changes in the coming days to replace Zuma acolytes in key portfolios who have been accused of mismanagement and implicated in corruption.
Ramaphosa, who will see out the remainder of Zuma’s presidential term until elections next year, faces an uphill battle to win public and investor support.
He ended his speech by quoting trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela, known as the “father of South African jazz” who used his music in the fight against apartheid.
“In his song, “Thuma Mina”, he anticipated a day of renewal, of new beginnings. He sang: “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around”,” Ramaphosa said. Most of the lawmakers there broke into song and danced.
Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Andrew Heavens