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Poverty Eradication Top Priority for South African Government

South African President Jacob Zuma says poverty reduction will be the cornerstone of his government's policy and immediate action is needed to reduce the impact of the global economic downturn on the most vulnerable. He made the remarks during his first state-of-the-nation speech since taking office last month.

In his first major speech as South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma showed he had heard the voters who overwhelmingly elected him six weeks ago. He said the plight of the 40 percent of South Africans living in poverty would be his top priority.

"We shall not rest and we dare not falter, in our drive to eradicate poverty," said Mr. Zuma.

Mr. Zuma pledged to create 500,000 jobs by the end of this year and four million jobs in the next five years.

He pledged to fast-track a public-works program to build schools, health centers, roads and information networks. And he said initiatives would be strengthened to increase skill levels of unemployed and under-employed workers.

In a country with one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, Mr. Zuma pledged to reduce the rate of HIV infection by 50 percent in three years and extend anti-retroviral treatment to 80 percent of those suffering from AIDS.

He also pledged to reduce the crime rate by seven percent a year and fight official corruption.

But South Africa's new president also sought to lower expectations by warning the global recession would slow his plans.

"Since the implementation of our program will take place in the face of the economic downturn, we will have to act prudently - no wastage, no rollovers of funds," he said. "Every cent must be spent wisely and fruitfully."

On foreign policy, Mr. Zuma said he would support Zimbabwe's power-sharing government until free and fair elections are held. And he pledged to support regional efforts to end the crises in Darfur and Madagascar.

The parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Athol Trollip, echoed the generally positive reaction to the address.

"The speech was long on promises, which is good," he said. "South Africa needs promises and undertakings to do certain things. But the deliverables about how they are going to be done actually needs to be rolled out over the next weeks. And we are interested to see how they are going to fund these initiatives and how they are going to actually do them."

Analysts said the rise of Mr. Zuma from a cattle herder to one of the most powerful positions on the continent had raised hope among many South Africans.

But they also noted that he faces major challenges to satisfy expectations of supporters among trade unions, the Communist Party and the poor without shaking the confidence of the business community and foreign investors. Public-health worker unions are threatening to strike over poor pay and working conditions, and the powerful mining and automobile workers unions have threatened to strike unless interest rates are further reduced.

Economists say more than 200,000 jobs have been lost in South Africa's first recession since the end of apartheid 15 years ago.