ANC treasurer-general and presidential hopeful Zweli Mkhize called on Nelson Mandela University's South African Students Congress (Sasco) leaders not to get caught up in the "politics of money".
Mkhize was speaking at a Nelson Mandela memorial lecture ahead of the university's student representative council elections next week.
Mkhize has emerged in recent weeks as a potential successor to Zuma, who is due to step down as ANC leader at the party's elective conference in December and as national president in 2019.
He has won support in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga - two eastern provinces with the biggest number of ANC members. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former chairperson of the African Union Commission and the president's ex-wife, were previously seen as the only two serious contenders for the top post.
Mkhize said it was important that leaders were rescued from being captured by the politics of money currently affecting the ANC.
"You have the responsibility to prove that we have turned our backs on that culture and the ANC must do the same," he said.
Mkhize said there was a perception among the general populace that the ANC was corrupt.
"The future of the movement is at risk because there is a perception that we are tolerant of corruption," he said.
"It is only a few who are accused. It is up to the rest who are not corrupt, who must rise up so that people can see that the corrupt are the exception, not the norm," he said.
Mkhize called for unity in the ANC leading up to the elective conference in December, calling on the various factions to unite around reviving the founding values of the organisation.
Mkhize praised the leadership of Sasco for its vision after listening to their manifesto ahead of the elections next week.
Earlier, chairperson of the western region, Bamanye Matiwane, said Sasco would be calling for free education for all students next year. He said they would also be championing for each National Student Financial Aid Scheme student to receive a free laptop and free electricity for those living off campus.
Matiwane also called for transformation at the university, of both staff and the curriculum.
"We want to tell these white liberal lecturers, we are coming for you," he said.
Mkhize said while he was not sure of the current figures, the last time he had checked only 27% of the lecturers at the university were black.
"We need to ask, what has the university changed? How different is it from when it used to UPE (University of Port Elizabeth)?" he said.
Mkhize asked the students how many of them were being groomed to become professors at the institution.
He said it was necessary for there to be a true change in education if there was to be true economic transformation.
"The fourth industrial revolution is here, we have to ask how ready are we. Every student should have a tablet of some sort and access to the internet," he said.
"Fifty percent of the jobs being trained for today won't be around in 20 years. The question we should be asking is, what jobs are you going to create?"