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S.Africa president fires gun for May 8 election, vows growth

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday announced general elections would be held on May 8, as the ruling ANC party looks to reverse falling popularity due to weak growth, unemployment and corruption.

Ramaphosa sought to strike an optimistic tone and said South Africans were now “much more hopeful” after he took over one year ago from his scandal-tainted predecessor Jacob Zuma.

Delivering the annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament, Ramaphosa said that progress had been made tackling corruption and reviving the weak economy.

Zuma, who was notably absent among other former presidents attending the speech, was forced to resign by ANC lawmakers due to mounting graft scandals that are being probed by a judicial commission in Johannesburg.

“A year ago, we set out on a path of growth and renewal,” Ramaphosa said. “Emerging from a period of uncertainty and a loss of confidence and trust, we resolved to break with all that divides us.

“We resolved to cure our country of the corrosive effects of corruption and to restore the integrity of our institutions.”

Alleged corruption under Zuma — known as “state capture” — centred around millions of dollars being syphoned off through the government and state agencies awarding fraudulent contracts to favoured companies in return from bribes.

“We have had to deal with the effects of state capture on vital public institutions, including our law enforcement agencies, whose integrity and ability to fulfil their mandate had been eroded in recent years,” Ramaphosa, who served as Zuma’s vice-president, said.

– Race to attract voters –

Delivering sharp criticisms of Zuma’s record, Ramaphosa told lawmakers that “mismanagement and corruption had severely undermined” state-owned companies such as the debt-laden Eskom power monopoly, which he admitted posed a major threat to the economy.

Ramaphosa has struggled to produce immediate results since taking over, with growth less than one percent last year, and record unemployment stubbornly high at more than 27 percent.

The ongoing judicial commission into graft has also heard blow-by-blow details of how bribes were paid to government and party officials, including senior cabinet ministers serving in Ramaphosa’s government.

The corruption revelations were “deeply disturbing, for they reveal a breadth and depth of criminal wrongdoing,” Ramaphosa admitted.

The president is under pressure to move against the implicated officials, but he must also strive for party unity through the election, in which the ANC will face the centralist Democratic Alliance (DA) and radical left Economic Freedom Fighters parties.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane said the speech was just “nice talk”, adding “we need a better plan, we need an immediate plan.”

Sanisha Packirisamy, an analyst for the Momentum insurance group, said the president had “showed strong political will” but that investors could be deterred by lack of detail on his plans to enforce land redistribution without compensation.

Ramaphosa received a boost ahead of his speech when French energy giant Total announced it had found gas deposits off the southern coast of South Africa.

The president called the discovery a potential “game changer” for the economy.

He ended his speech with a call for South Africa to rediscover its post-apartheid optimism, 25 years after the end of white-minority rule when elections brought Nelson Mandela to power.

“At times it has seemed that the milk of human kindness that allowed us to reconcile in 1994 had gone sour. But we will not surrender to the forces of pessimism and defeatism,” he said.

Despite dipping in the polls, the ANC is tipped to win a clear majority in the parliamentary election.