South Africa’s newly installed President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his maiden State of the Nation address on Friday, declaring “a new dawn” that will “confront the injustices of the past and the inequalities of the present,” before vowing to crackdown on corruption.
The 65-year-old was confirmed as the country’s new leader on Thursday just hours after his scandal-plagued predecessor Jacob Zuma finally resigned. Ramaphosa, head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party since December, went unopposed during a session of Parliament.
Ramaphosa’s elevation has been welcomed by many South Africans eager for change in the country, which faced nine years of economic stagnation under Zuma. During that time, Zuma faced a slew of corruption scandals that have drained support from the ANC, earning him the moniker of the “Teflon president.” Zuma denies all the corruption allegations against him.
Delivering the key speech at the National Assembly in Cape Town, Ramaphosa invoked the memory of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President Nelson Mandela while highlighting the deep divisions that still exist within the community, particularly along racial and gender lines.
“We are continuing the long walk he began, to build a society in which all may be free, in which all may be equal before the law and in which all may share in the wealth of our land and have a better life,” Ramaphosa said.
“We are building a country where a person’s prospects are determined by their own initiative and hard work, and not by the color of their skin, place of birth, gender, language or income of their parents.”
The annual State of the Nation address should have been delivered last week but the flagship event was postponed to allow party officials to negotiate the political transition. Ramaphosa will now lead the party – and the country – through to the 2019 general elections.
There was an air of optimism in the National Assembly as Ramaphosa outlined his plan for the coming months.
Challenges facing Ramaphosa
He promised to crack down on corruption by building 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 specifically highlighted that there would be changes to the way state-owned company boards were appointed, so that only those with “expertise, experience and integrity” serve in such positions.
Ramaphosa added that South Africa faces “tough decisions” to improve the country’s economic outlook, placing job creation – particularly for young people – at the center of his national agenda for the year. One initiative outlined was the announcement of a jobs summit, which would target some of the causes of the country’s economic stagnation. The new leader also singled out mining as another area of “unrealized potential for growth.”
Ramaphosa said key manufacturing sectors would be overhauled to demonstrate opportunities for international investors and said there there would be further actions to boost growth in the agricultural sector.
“We will accelerate our land redistribution program not only to redress a grave historical injustice, but also to bring more producers into the agricultural sector and to make more land available for cultivation.
“This approach will include the expropriation of land without compensation,” he added.
“We are determined that expropriation without compensation should be implemented in a way that increases agricultural production, improves food security and ensure that land is returned to those from who it was taken under colonialism and apartheid.”
Second chance to lead South Africa
Ramaphosa, who, as deputy president, became interim President immediately after Zuma’s resignation Wednesday – made his name as a trade union leader during the apartheid era and as the chief negotiator for Nelson Mandela, helping to shepherd South Africa out of white minority rule in the 1990s.
Ramaphosa had been handpicked by Mandela to succeed him when his presidency ended. But Ramaphosa lost the race to lead the ANC – and the country – to Thabo Mbeki, another struggle leader who returned to South Africa after living in exile. Ramaphosa left government afterward and made his fortune in the business world.
Since returning to public life, he has spoken out against corruption and found significant support in urban areas, in the business community and among ANC stalwarts.
Ramaphosa was elected to head the ANC in December with a pledge to tackle corruption and the country’s myriad other problems.
“We want to clean up South Africa so that we can begin to make it more attractive to investors but at the same time to deal with the issues that are impeding growth,” Ramaphosa told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview last month.
“This is not a flash in the pan,” Ramaphosa said. “We are going to make sure that we do not disappoint our people.”
Police raid on Zuma associates’ property
The Ramaphosa presidency may be the future, but the past is never far away.
One of Zuma’s associates had failed to turn himself in following the raids on his family’s property Wednesday. Hangwani Mulaudzi, spokesman for the Hawks, South Africa’s elite police force, told CNN that authorities were actively looking for Ajay Gupta and considered him a fugitive, asking that he surrender.
Wednesday’s operation was linked to the Vrede Farm scandal in which the three Guptas and government officials are accused of stealing money allocated to benefit poor farmers. Zuma has been implicated in the case, but he and the Guptas deny involvement.
CNN’s Brent Swails and James Masters contributed to this report.