January 9, 2016 / 4:39 PM / in 2 years

South Africa's Zuma wants more blacks in boardrooms, gears up for local polls

RUSTENBURG, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa’s private sector must change faster to give blacks a larger stake in business, President Jacob Zuma told a rally on Saturday, urging the ruling party to help create more jobs in a local government election year.

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (L), who is also the president of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), gestures next to his Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa during the party's 104th anniversary celebrations in Rustenburg January 9, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Since coming to power in 1994 at the end of white minority rule, the ruling African National Congress party has changed the complexion of the civil service, the military and state-owned companies, helping many who were excluded from the mainstream economy under apartheid to create a solid black middle class.

But Africa’s most industrialized economy is struggling - its currency this week hit a record low of 16.315 to the dollar, the World Bank has forecast growth to reach only 1.4 percent this year from the government’s estimated 1.5 percent and unemployment stands at 25 percent - the ANC forecasts a tough test from the opposition at the municipal polls.

Last month Zuma changed finance ministers twice in a week, alarming investors and triggering financial turmoil.

The agricultural sector is reeling under the worst drought in three decades, forcing Africa’s top grain producer to import maize. The mining sector, hit hard by slowing demand from China, is shedding jobs and selling or shutting unviable mines to survive.

“Sadly the private sector lags behind ... Many boardrooms and many top management positions remain white-male dominated. This must change,” Zuma told about 40,000 cheering supporters at a stadium in the town of Rustenburg in the North West province in a speech to mark the 104-birthday of the ANC.

“The country needs a private sector that acts in the national interest and which contributes to the attainment of the national goals of eradicating poverty, unemployment and inequality.”

With local elections expected mid this year at a date yet to be announced, Zuma also used the rally to woo young voters, most of whom are not automatically joining the ANC, according to surveys, compared to older voters who still feel grateful to the party for winning their freedom from apartheid.

Students last year hurled rocks at Zuma’s office in the capital Pretoria to protest against 2016 university fee increases. Zuma abolished the proposed fee hikes.

Zuma supporters said a lack of jobs was a big concern.

“We still have a high unemployment rate, especially among the youth. Not enough is being done to employ them,” Linda Mathonsi, 46, a school teacher at the rally said.

The ANC is under pressure in the local polls, especially in the province of Gauteng, the country’s economic hub, raising the possibility it could lose control of either or both the commercial capital Johannesburg or Pretoria in this year’s elections.

Writing by TJ Strydom; Editing by James Macharia/Ruth Pitchford

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