South Africa's new ruling party leader wants to woo foreign investors, fight corruption

African National Congress president Cyril Ramaphosa addressing supporters at the ANC's 106th anniversary celebrations at Absa Stadium in East London, South Africa, on Saturday (Jan 13).
African National Congress president Cyril Ramaphosa addressing supporters at the ANC's 106th anniversary celebrations at Absa Stadium in East London, South Africa, on Saturday (Jan 13).PHOTO: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Locals, mostly women, await their turn in a queue at communal taps in Kliptown, a corrugated zinc slum that is home to 45,000 people in Soweto, Johannesburg.

A string of portable toilets along a dusty street grant privacy but also stoke airborne sickness, according to Kliptown Youth Programme co-founder Thando Bezana.

It's a far cry from the neighbouring Eldorado Park and Dlamini townships that hint at the First World.

A 40-minute drive to Sandton, Africa's richest square mile, takes you to another world. The contrasts typify South Africa's status as the world's most unequal society.

Official statistics say unemployment rates in Kliptown exceed 70 per cent. This makes the alarming national average, oscillating between 25 per cent and 30 per cent, look decent.

The country now wants to attract foreign investors to help it kick-start economic growth and will crack down on corruption, the new leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) said in his first major address to the party at a rally for its 106th anniversary celebrations on Saturday (Jan 13).

"South Africa is open for investment," Mr Cyril Ramaphosa told tens of thousands of cheering ANC members in a stadium in the Eastern Cape province. "We must have an economy that offers policy certainty and addresses areas that inhibit investment, growth as well as social inclusion," said the business-friendly lawyer.

Mr Ramaphosa was elected party president last month after a bruising and divisive leadership contest.

Having served as deputy president since 2014, the 65-year-old - whose background includes unionism and business - will become South Africa's next head of state if, as expected, the ANC wins next year's polls. The party, once led by Nelson Mandela, has won every general election since 1994, the advent of democracy.

"(The) black majority should be recognised for their role in the economy. If they work in the mines and work the fields they are also entitled to share in the economy," Mr Ramaphosa said.

Race is still an issue here, due to the country's recent past when classification along such lines governed most spheres of life.

Mr Ramaphosa's win was far from sweet. Factions allied to President Jacob Zuma, whose favoured candidate and former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma lost to Mr Ramaphosa, fiercely oppose plans to remove Mr Zuma before his term expires early next year.

Worse, the new chief's anti-graft crusade will pit him against the scandal-prone Zuma but the latter's influence could stoke a split - a scenario which would have serious ramifications for the county's future.

Mr Ramaphosa's campaigner and provincial MP Jomo Sibiya derides the topic and refers instead to the new leader's "unifying" style.

Back in Kliptown - birthplace of the Freedom Charter, precursor to the present constitution, which envisaged work and education for all, security and redistribution of wealth - many earn about US$1 (S$1.32) a day.

Ideals espoused by the Charter remain a dream as apartheid's racial legacy continues to define access to opportunities, admits Johannesburg businesswoman Audrey King.

Many children are malnourished in Kliptown.

"Is this a life?" asks Mr Sifiso Mdluli, who was forced to quit university due to lack of funds. His struggle mirrors that of many black youths. "All politicians are the same," he says when asked for his take on Mr Ramaphosa.

University of Johannesburg academic Mcebisi Ndletyana feels that when Mr Ramaphosa became Mr Zuma's deputy, it gave "respectability to infamy".

But teenagers Itumeleng Mutholini and Wandile Thafeni are banking on the man who built a 6.7-billion-rand (S$717 million) empire in two decades.

The ANC has faced a litany of crises under Mr Zuma. Still, Mr Sibiya sees the party reclaiming ground lost in the Zuma years during next year's polls.

Mr Ramaphosa's to-do list is long. State-owned enterprises are struggling. Ratings agencies have cut the country's credit rating status to junk. The rand fell to its long-term worst levels in the past 24 months.

More than half of South Africa's population live in poverty.

Mr Sibiya says: "Our people have been living on the margins far too long, there's no dilly-dallying about that."