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South African Opposition Slams New President in Maiden Speech


President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 16, 2018.

South Africa's opposition has harshly criticized new President Cyril Ramaphosa's first State of the Nation Address, questioning whether the new president has a concrete plan to address the nation's many challenges.

A day after taking office to replace the unpopular Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa's address on Friday outlined big ambitions and challenged South Africans to follow in the steps of their greatest leader.

"Together we are going to make history in our country," he said to a parliament that, for the most part, warmly welcomed his appearance Friday. "We have done it before.We have done it before and we can do it again bonded by our common love for our country, resolute in our determination to overcome the challenges that lie ahead and convinced that by working together we will build the fair and just, and decent society to which Nelson Mandela dedicated his life."

But Monday's parliament session gave the opposition an opportunity to poke holes in his vision, which they did.

The state of the nation address is a comprehensive round-up of almost every aspect of government work, and 40 speakers from the ruling African National Congress and the opposition debated the finer points for much, much longer than the original 90-minute speech.

Ramaphosa's every position was dissected and questioned -- from public safety to education to healthcare to the ANC's proposal expropriate farmland without compensation.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance also challenged Ramaphosa's pledge to wipe out corruption after Zuma's nine-year run that was riddled with serious, mounting corruption allegations. Critics of Zuma and the ANC have long maintained that Zuma did not act alone in allegedly squandering tens of millions of dollars' in government funds.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane challenged Ramaphosa to make good on his promises with concrete action.

"Now I know this is hard, because the president has to dish out patronage to many people," he said. "But Mr. President, let me perhaps ask you to start removing ministers who have already shown themselves to be compromised? Show South Africa you are really serious about fighting corruption in your party and fire Bathabile Dlamini, Faith Muthambi, Mosebenzi Zwane, Malusi Gigaba, Des van Rooyen, David Mahlobo, Lynne Brown and Mr. Seven-Thousand-Rands-Per-Night Bongani Bongo out of your cabinet."

All of those officials have been implicated in corruption scandals or allegations of corruption.

FILE - Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, raises objections before being evicted from Parliament during President Jacob Zuma's question and answer session in Cape Town, South Africa, May 17, 2016.
FILE - Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, raises objections before being evicted from Parliament during President Jacob Zuma's question and answer session in Cape Town, South Africa, May 17, 2016.

Too vague?

And that, the opposition maintained, was the weakest point of Ramaphosa's speech. He promised sweeping changes and more summits, conferences and working groups than observers could count -- but little in the way of specifics.

That was not lost on the sharp-tongued leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema.

"President, we are saying to you, you are doing all of this because you know that you will be a president for 12 months," he said. "You are effectively saying to South Africa, there is nothing I can do in the next 12 months, because I will be looking for plans from commissions, and after 12 months you will be gone," said Malema.

Ramaphosa has just over a year to implement whatever changes he can, while also trying to steer his party -- and himself -- to victory in next year's national polls.

While the first few days on the job have seen little real change in the way of policy, Ramaphosa will have a chance to refute the criticisms on Tuesday, when he appears in parliament to address and refute points raised in Monday's debate.

That may show whether Ramaphosa is willing to do something his combative predecessor did not do with his political opponents: talk things out.

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