CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — President Cyril Ramaphosa insisted Thursday that his ruling African National Congress party is making progress in addressing South Africa’s problems such as record unemployment, an electricity crisis and corruption allegations that have even dented his own reputation.
Ramaphosa’s nearly two-hour State of the Nation speech to Parliament was largely a defense of his first term in office — and the ANC’s 30 years in government — ahead of elections later this year.
Several polls suggest the party once led by Nelson Mandela could lose its majority this year in what would be a landmark moment for South Africa.
The ANC has been in government ever since the end of the apartheid system of racial segregation in 1994, but its reputation as South Africa’s liberator has been eroded and its support has gradually declined.
“Just as we cannot deny the progress South Africans have made over the last 30 years, nor should we diminish the severe challenges that we continue to face,” Ramaphosa said.
While Ramaphosa conceded Africa’s most developed economy has serious problems, he maintained throughout his address that it was a better place than it was under apartheid in what amounted to a call to the country to keep faith with the ANC.
That is becoming increasingly hard for many in South Africa given its official unemployment rate of more than 30%, the highest in the world. Unemployment for young people under 25 is at a shocking 60%.
South Africa’s struggling economy has also been seriously hampered by an electricity crisis, with rolling blackouts across the country proving disastrous for businesses.
The energy crisis, which led to record blackouts of up to 12 hours a day last year, has been blamed by many, including Ramaphosa, on the administration of former President Jacob Zuma. Zuma led South Africa from 2009-2018 and is accused of overseeing a period of rampant corruption, when state-owned entities like the national electricity supplier were stripped bare.
Ramaphosa, who was elected in 2019, said his administration was left to repair the damage. He said more than 200 people had been prosecuted for serious corruption and more were under investigation. He said $453 million stolen through corruption had been returned to the state, and another $737 million had been frozen by authorities.
“But there is much more work to be done to eradicate corruption completely,” Ramaphosa said. “We will not stop until every person responsible is held to account. We will not stop until all money stolen has been recovered.”
Some estimates put the cost of that period of corruption at $17 billion. A leading South African news website quipped “Ramaphosa praises ANC government for rebuilding what they destroyed.”
While Ramaphosa was elected mainly on a promise to end corruption and clean up the ANC, he was also tainted by scandal when he it was revealed in 2022 that he had more than $500,000 in U.S. cash hidden inside furniture at a ranch he owns. The amount came to light when it was reported stolen. Ramaphosa was cleared of wrongdoing despite allegations of money laundering and tax evasion by political opponents, but the episode reportedly pushed him to the brink of resigning.
He is now seeking a second and final five-year term in elections which must happen between May and August. It was thought that Ramaphosa might announce the election date in his State of the Nation speech, but his spokesperson said he will make the announcement later this month.
The ANC is still widely expected to win the largest share of votes in South Africa’s seventh all-race national elections since the downfall of apartheid.
But if it drops below 50%, it would need to enter into a coalition to remain in government and keep Ramaphosa for a second term. South Africans vote for political parties and not individual candidates. Parties are assigned seats in Parliament according to their share of the vote and lawmakers then elect the president, which has always been the leader of the ANC since 1994 because of its majority.
Ramaphosa’s speech was largely greeted by cheers from ANC lawmakers and occasional jeers from opposition members, but it wasn’t the sometimes raucous event it has been in previous years after new rules were put in place preventing lawmakers from interrupting the president to make their own political points.
The Economic Freedom Fighters party, the third biggest in Parliament, boycotted the speech after six of its top officials, including its leader, were suspended from Parliament for the month of February and barred from the address for disrupting it last year by rushing the stage.
Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema called Ramaphosa and the ANC “cowards” for not allowing the six lawmakers to attend, although the decision to suspend them was made by Parliament’s disciplinary committee.
The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, said Ramaphosa’s speech didn’t hide that the country had regressed under him “into a state of decay and decline that has only exacerbated inequality, placed millions more in the unemployment queue, and taken our country backward.”
“Thirty years of South African democracy does not mean we should endure an eternity under the ANC. It is time for new ideas. It is time for a new government,” Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said.
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