CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma is expected to receive a hostile reception when he opens parliament on Thursday, with opponents set to challenge him over graft allegations and the weakening economy.
Zuma’s first State Of The Nation speech since winning an election last May should have been a welcome opportunity for him to highlight the achievements of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its plans for the year ahead.
However, members of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by firebrand former-ANC youth leader Julius Malema, are expected to take the unusual step of quizzing Zuma over a controversial $23 million security upgrade to his home.
“All we are going to do is ask the president questions because the president has gone AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) and never reported to parliament for question and answer sessions,” Malema told 702 Radio on Thursday.
Malema said he would “insist in a polite manner” that he be allowed to quiz Zuma on the scandal.
South Africa’s usually calm parliament has been shaken-up since the EFF won 25 seats in May’s election. Its members wear red overalls and hard hats in the chamber, in a symbol of their apparent close ties to the working classes.
Populist agitator Malema is likely to focus his examination of Zuma on alleged wrongdoing in the upgrades to his residence in Nkandla, which came under heavy criticism in a report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela last March.
Madonsela’s report said Zuma had “benefited unduly” from some of the upgrades, which included a cattle enclosure and amphitheatre, and should pay back some of the costs.
Zuma has denied any wrongdoing.
At Zuma’s last appearance in parliament in August, raucous EFF members relentlessly chanted “pay back the money” at the awkward-looking president, prompting Speaker Baleka Mbete to suspend the session.
Zuma will also be under pressure to explain the increasingly precarious state of Africa’s most developed economy, which was hit by record strikes in the mining sector last year and its worst power shortages since 2008.
The treasury has cut its economic growth forecast for 2015 to 2.5 percent from 3.2 percent previously, while the rand collapsed to a near 13-year low earlier this week.
Zuma is likely choose to focus his speech on the huge strides South Africa has made under ANC leadership since the end of apartheid in 1994 and its vision for economic transformation under a 20-year National Development Plan.
Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Stella Mapenzauswa; Writing by Joe Brock