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S.Africa’s ANC promises voters ‘radical’ economic change

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma on Saturday kicked off his party’s election campaign with a slew of promises to crack down on rampant graft and poverty, in a bid to woo disenchanted voters.

The ruling African National Congress is facing a tough election with the voters who have kept them in power for two decades increasingly disillusioned by social problems, unemployment and corruption scandals.

However, the 102-year-old party which has ruled since the end of apartheid remains popular, and tens of thousands packed the 43,500 capacity Mbombela Stadium in the east of the country for the official start of voting season.

“We have …put radical economic transformation as the central focus of our plans for the next five years,” Zuma told cheering supporters.

“This state will increase its strategic role in the economy and decisively intervene in favour of the interests of the people, particularly the poor and workers”

Wearing bright yellow ANC T-shirts, supporters sang and danced to old liberation songs.

Some chanted pro-Zuma slogans to show support for their embattled leader, who was last month booed by angry South Africans in front of dozens of world leaders during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

Zuma and other members of his government have been embroiled in high-profile graft scandals which have chipped away at party support.

Anti-Zuma sentiment heightened last year over a controversial 14.5-million-euro ($20-million) state-funded revamp at his private home.

However last month, a government-led task force report found that Zuma had no role in influencing the upgrades.

The president warned that any ANC members and public officials found guilty of corruption would have to step down from their position of leadership in the party.

“The ANC government remains very clear that corruption must be fought wherever it occurs and in all its manifestations,” said Zuma.

“We shall continue to work …to address this scourge.”

Unemployment crisis

Despite being the continent’s richest country, South Africa has one of the world’s biggest gaps between the wealthy and the poor and is dogged by stubbornly high unemployment rates.

Around a quarter of employable South Africans are without jobs, with the official jobless rate at 24.7 percent, although the actual number of unemployed is believed to be much higher.

The ANC’s election manifesto hinges on a development plan, which is opposed by some of Zuma’s allies in the labour movement who see it as neo-liberal. The party hopes to create six million jobs in the next five years.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance said the unemployment crisis was the “single defining failure” of Zuma’s rule.

The general election, expected in the first half of this year, coincides with the country’s 20th anniversary since the end of apartheid in 1994.

South Africans born after the end of apartheid, the so-called “born-frees”, will be voting for the first time.

They are bearing the brunt of slowing economic growth and dwindling job opportunities, and analysts have warned that the younger voters will be the hardest to woo.

“I can’t explain the excitement of being able to vote for the first time,” said Akon Tuwara, a final high-school year student. “But what I know is that I am going to vote for the ANC until I die.”

The ANC is still expected to win, but its growing unpopularity is expected to take a chunk out of its share of the vote, which was 65 percent in 2009 elections.

An Ipsos survey conducted in October and November 2013, showed support for the ANC had dropped by 10 percentage points from a year earlier to 53 percent.

Among those challenging the ANC in this year’s vote will be populist politician Julius Malema, a former youth leader who was expelled from the party in 2012 for ill discipline.