South African President Jacob Zuma faced a hostile crowd on Thursday when delivering his annual state-of-the-nation address amid widespread protests over (his) government corruption. After a raucous start, Zuma was able to deliver his speech only after several vocal opposition leaders were asked to leave.
The scandal over the president’s alleged misuse of government money first heated up in 2014 — Zuma is accused of using $23 million of state funds on renovations for his private residence, Nkandla. (Think “security upgrades” that included an amphitheater and swimming pool.)
Nearly two years of denials later, Zuma has offered to repay some of the money after opposition leaders brought the case to South Africa’s highest court, all the while shying clear of an outright admission of guilt. Indeed, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) issued this carefully worded statement following Zuma’s reversal:
Our support for the proposed solution does not imply that President Zuma is responsible for wrongdoing in the security upgrades at Nkandla — we still call for prosecution of those responsible.
Zuma’s concession has nonetheless bolstered the opposition, which rejected his offer and pressed for the case to move forward, eyeing an eventual impeachment hearing no doubt. Though it’s questionable if it will go that far, South Africa’s main oppo parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are enjoying the momentum for the time being. After all, what better illustration of the “corruption and cronyism” oppo groups have long decried within the ANC-led government than a multi-million-dollar swimming pool? Though, according to a 2015 report commissioned by the president, the swimming pool was in fact a security measure used for fighting fires…
Little wonder that the DA and EFF have been able to rally public sentiment, with hash tags like #PayBackTheMoney and #ZumaMustFall trending this week.
The timing is bad for Zuma. South Africa’s economy is rocky, as is the ANC’s grip on power. Zuma himself has seen his once solid authority falter in recent months, thanks in part to his disastrous – and highly publicized — handling of the finance ministry in December (he fired two ministers in one week).
Thursday’s state-of-the-union was aimed at both calming internal tensions and assuaging uneasy foreign creditors and investors (this after the multi-tiered plan unveiled in Zuma’s 2015 address to heal South Africa’s economy did next to nothing). Instead, much of the focus revolved around opposition MPs questioning Zuma’s legitimacy and loudly insulting the president for the Nkandla renovations.
Before Zuma can look to fixing South Africa’s economic ails, he’ll have to figure out his own.