JOHANNESBURG - President Cyril Ramaphosa scolded his ruling African National Congress (ANC) on Friday for losing the trust of South Africans, saying the party was weaker than at any time since it ended white minority rule in 1994.

In a sombre address to an ANC national policy conference in Johannesburg, Ramaphosa urged delegates to come up with ways to tackle the corruption, persistent poverty, unemployment and poor public services that he said had led to the party's worst election result in history in last November's local polls.

"The ANC today is its weakest and most vulnerable since the advent of democracy," he said. "Our weaknesses are evident in the distrust, the disillusionment, the frustration that is expressed by many people towards our movement and government."

The party's weaknesses were clearly reflected in its unprecedented failure to get more than 50% of the vote in the municipal polls, he said, but also in the "divisions within our ranks ... (which) manifest themselves in patronage, gatekeeping, vote buying and ... are driven by corruption".

Ramaphosa and his party, which has been in power for nearly three decades, face growing public anger over multiple issues, including worsening electricity blackouts because of a crisis at the state power provider, Eskom, poor or non-existent basic services, a sluggish economy, corrupt procurement tenders and a spate of crime-related shootings.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meanwhile worsened an already wide gab between the richest and poorest South Africans -- a quarter of the country of about 60 million struggles to put food on the table.

The party is also more divided than when Ramaphosa took power in 2017, ousting his predecessor Jacob Zuma, who is being investigated for several corruption scandals during and before his presidency. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.

Ramaphosa's own finances are being investigated after a $4 million theft of cash at his farm in June, and a faction loyal to Zuma is hoping to use this to unseat him at an elective party conference at the end of this year ahead of 2024 national polls.

Ramaphosa says the money was proceeds from sales of game animals on the farm, but he has publicly welcomed the police investigation.

In a speech punctuated by subdued applause, Ramaphosa urged the ANC to tackle the challenges facing it, especially local government corruption and unemployment, currently affecting one third of the country.

"The people of South Africa will not forgive us if we abandon ... confronting wrongdoing within our ranks," he said.

(Editing by Frances Kerry)