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Africa

Zuma's promises fail to impress

Amid heckling from the opposition, the South African president used his State of the Nation speech to try and redeem himself following a spending scandal. But calls for him to step down are growing.

After a stormy start to his address in Cape Town on Thursday, President Jacob Zuma did his best to try and win back the citizens' trust. Zuma is facing a serious onslaught after it emerged he had spent $16 million (14.1 million euros) of public funds on upgrades to his country estate including a swimming pool and an amphitheater.

After noisy disruptions from some opposition members calling for him to "pay back the money," Zuma, who is serving his second five-year term in office since 2014, lacked some much needed credibility as he pledged to cut down on wasteful expenditure by the state and its officials. Overseas trips would be curtailed, delegations would be reduced and conferences and catering would be restricted, he said.

Zuma also caused a stir when he announced that the government was considering integrating the two current capitals - Cape Town which is the legislative capital, and Pretoria, which is the administrative and executive capital. He admitted it was expensive for ministers and officials to be travelling between the two capitals. Many ministers keep houses and vehicles in both the cities, while officials stay in hotels, which was not sustainable, Zuma said. "The Minister of Finance will announce more measures soon," he added.

No mention of ongoing court case

President Zuma did not mention the court hearing on February 9. Legal experts had stated that he had violated the constitution when he failed to comply with the orders of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela over the security upgrades at his homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal.

Two years ago, the Public Protector ordered that he should pay back a portion of the nearly 250 million rand ($15.7 million) spent on what Zuma said were security upgrades – legally the president can use public funds to secure his residence. But the swimming pool, chicken run and amphitheatre were not part of the security upgrades, Madonsela pointed out. The constitutional court is set to rule on the matter soon.

Public Protector Madonsela, who attended the State of the Nation Address, said afterwards that she would have been happy if Zuma had recognized his constitutional responsibilities. "It's vital for our democracy that the constitution is followed by all people, and the president should have recognized this in his address," she said.

Protests against Zuma

Members of the EFF opposition party protested outside the court where the case over Zuma's spending was heard.

Economic promises

Continuing with his attempt to tackle the most important issue - the slow down of a once-thriving economy - Zuma told members of parliament and invited guests that the South African government, business leaders and labor force should work together to revitalize the economy and generate more foreign investment.

"Our economy must be resilient and fast growing," he said. "When the economy grows fast, it delivers jobs, workers earn wages and businesses make profit. The tax base also expands and allows the government to provide education, health, housing and other social services."

But the reality was that because of the global economic downturn, South Africa's economy was also muted and financial markets were voltatile, he acknowledged. Zuma said this was being aggravated by the economic slump of Brazil, Russia and China."Our economy is affected by all these developments. The IMF and World Bank have also stated that our economic growth will be less than one percent," he said.

Call for a 'non-racial society'

Zuma also drew attention to the country's ongoing battle against racism. This week marked the 26th anniversary since the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of incarceration. According to South Africa's constitution, Zuma said, the country belongs to all who lived in it, no matter what ethnic background they have. Unfortunately, he added, there had been a number of racial incidents recently.

Following racist social media postings which sparked outrage at the beginning of the year, Zuma acknowledged that "racism has reared its ugly head and this demon must be tackled." He pledged to use Human Rights Day on March 21 as an occasion to launch a “long-term program to build a non-racial society.”

'Not fit to be president'

Julius Malema walks out of parliament

Opposition leader Julius Malema led members of his party out of parliament in an act of protest during Zuma's speech

Opposition members also had strong reactions to the speech. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Congress of People (COPE) members, including leaders Julius Malema and Mosioua Lekota, who had interrupted Zuma on several occasions, said they were not impressed with Zuma's address. They said Zuma was "not fit to be president" and "he should have announced his resignation."

The main Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition also offered negative reactions to Zuma's speach. DA leader Mmusi Maimane said: "Overall, he is repeating the old plans, nothing new, and no hope for South Africans. Zuma has failed to announce fresh and innovative plans to create jobs for the 8.3 million unemployed South Africans," he said.

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