Johannesburg - South Africa faces a “serious struggle” to meet its plan to cut unemployment and boost growth because of the global slowdown, President Jacob Zuma said in his frankest admission about the state of the economy.
“You can’t say when the economy is not growing that your original plans will be implemented as they were,” Zuma said in an interview on Tuesday in Pretoria.
“There will be an impact, which will mean that in terms of how we meet them, it is going to be a serious struggle.”
South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to 25.5% in the third quarter, Stats SA said on Tuesday, as SA battles to create enough jobs at the same time that falling metal prices force mining companies to consider firing workers.
Zuma spoke at his residence near the Union Buildings where four days ago thousands of demonstrators called for a freeze on university tuition, capping more than a week of protests by the students that were the biggest since the end of apartheid.
The unrest provoked running battles between the police using stun grenades and protesters outside parliament in Cape Town and in Pretoria.
On Friday, Zuma bowed to their demand.
“It was clear that if we did not have a solution the demonstrations would have gone further,” Zuma said. “They were very courageous.”
The protests weren’t a sign of deepening discontent with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Zuma said, and were instead part of demands by young South Africans to ensure that black people gain equal access to an economy still dominated by whites.
The #FeesMustFall twitter campaign was fueled by rising student costs, including fees, housing, food and textbooks that can exceed R100 000 a year. First-year tuition alone at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where the protests started, ranges from about R32 000 to more than R58 000.
At the October 23 protest at the Union Buildings, Zuma said he observed students throwing stones at police and “interfering” with a podium set up for him, before deciding against coming out to address the protesters directly.
“There was anxiety because the behaviour of the students outside was quite something,” he said. “I didn’t think it was prudent to go and just meet the stones or whatever and therefore move away from the important issue of addressing the cause of the protests of the students.”
The student protests have rattled investors, with the rand slipping 4.3% against the dollar since the start of last week, the most of 16 major currencies monitored by Bloomberg.
“Our currency is in a sense being attacked by the global situation and we are trying to handle it from that angle,” Zuma said. “South Africa remains a destination for investment. I think we have everything it takes for investors to come here, and their investments are secured.”
“You can’t have a flourishing budget when the economy is in trouble,” Zuma said. “We need to have projects that generate employment even under the very distressed situation, but we can no longer say as we put these, we will indeed achieve them as we thought.”
On Tuesday, more than 10 000 people took part in a march by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters to the stock exchange, the central bank’s Johannesburg branch and the Chamber of Mines to demand interest-rate cuts, minimum wages for miners and a more equitable distribution of the country’s wealth.
Two years before the next ANC leadership contest, Zuma declined to confirm comments that he made to the Mail & Guardian this month that he won’t stand for a third term as the party’s leader. While the constitution limits a president to two terms, the ANC has no restriction.
“We don’t act as individuals; the ANC guides us,” he said. “At this time, that is not an issue. When the time comes the ANC will direct us.”