JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, seen as a top contender to lead the ruling ANC into 2019 general elections, said on Sunday that the country must not become a “mafia state” as he admitted his party had become associated with corruption.
Ramaphosa’s comments were among the strongest he has made on governance as the race heats up to replace President Jacob Zuma, whose administration has been hit by scandals and missteps, prompting street protests and calls for him to resign or be removed.
In televised remarks at an event in the platinum mining town of Rustenburg organised by the South African Communist Party (SACP), Ramaphosa responded to a warning this week from the influential South African Council of Churches that graft is turning South Africa into a mafia state.
“If we as the ANC are to counter this grave threat, if the ANC is to recover its leadership role in society, then it is absolutely imperative that we act with urgency and purpose and make sure that we never become a mafia state,” Ramaphosa said.
“Because once we become a mafia state all the wheels have come off,” said Ramaphosa, whose delivery was at times passionate, a marked contrast to his normally reserved manner.
The SACP setting was a pointed one as the party is a key political ally of the ANC and has called for Zuma to resign.
Relations between Zuma and Ramaphosa, 64, a former trade union organiser who led negotiations to end white rule in 1994, have become increasingly strained, according to local media reports.
Zuma has consistently denied allegations of corruption leveled against him, his government and some associates, and branded protesters calling for his resignation “racist”.
Clad in a leather jacket bearing the ANC’s black, green and gold colours, Ramaphosa said the party was saddled with an image problem when it came to corruption.
“In the public mind, the ANC and its government are increasingly associated, fairly or unfairly, with wrong things that the public continues to see us doing. Like corruption, like pursuing narrow personal enrichment,” he said.
Ramaphosa also said that he had met with ratings agency Moody’s on Friday and their view was that the ANC was on the verge of a split. He said he assured them that would not happen.
Both S&P Global Ratings and Fitch downgraded South Africa’s credit rating to below investment grade in April after Zuma fired respected former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, a move Ramaphosa opposed and triggered nationwide unrest.
Zuma is to step down as head of the ANC in December but can remain head of state until the 2019 elections. He has signaled his preference that his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former cabinet minister and head of the African Union, replace him.
Editing by Richard Lough