South Africa’s ruling party boss Jacob Zuma said Friday that unemployment was the country’s biggest problem, as he kicked off economic talks seen as another step toward his presidential run.

“The most pressing challenge in South Africa is that of unemployment,” Zuma said at the start of a meeting of his ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its leftist allies.

“Significant proportions of our people do not have jobs or are in very low-paying jobs. Government must address this problem immediately,” he said.

“Creating decent jobs must be the cornerstone of all economic policies,” he added, saying that the government also needed to provide education and training so that people can find better work.

“Where people are not suitably educated or skilled, the chances are very high that they will forever remain trapped in low-wage, exploitative jobs or not get any jobs at all,” Zuma said.

Unemployment — at only four per cent among white South Africans — is at 23 per cent among the entire population, and the real rate is believed to be twice as high.

Zuma took over the leadership of the ANC in December, in a stunning upset for former South African president Thabo Mbeki.

Zuma is now widely expected to run for president in elections next year, after the ANC forced Mbeki to resign last month in a long-running power struggle between the two.

Mbeki had been been criticised as aloof and distant to the needs of the poor in a country where 43 per cent of the 48 million people live on less than two dollars a day.

Zuma is close to the powerful unions and the South African Communist Party. The ANC’s meeting with the two allies this weekend is widely seen as laying out an economic platform for the party ahead of the elections next year.