- - Wednesday, February 11, 2015

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation speech Thursday, meant to celebrate his government’s achievements and lay out its agenda, instead seems set to be one more embarrassment for the presidency at a time when security is breaking down and the economy is struggling in a key African military and economic power.

Even as South Africans on Wednesday celebrated the 25th anniversary of the prison release of Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first black president, the political party that the anti-apartheid icon led — the African National Congress, which Mr. Zuma now leads — was stung by criticism about increasing crime, unrelenting poverty and widespread power outages amid accusations of outright corruption in the ANC’s highest echelons.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s most radical party, has pledged to disrupt the State of the Nation speech unless Mr. Zuma explains how and when he will repay more than $20 million in public funds spent upgrading his private home.

EFF’s “commander in chief” — former ANC youth leader Julius Malema — has pursued the ruling party in the media and at rallies since Public Protector Thuli Madonsela — whose job is a form of an anti-corruption crusader — ruled in March that state funds were misused in upgrading the president’s home in Nkandla. Ms. Madonsela also said Mr. Zuma should return some of the money that was used to add an amphitheater, a swimming pool and a visitors center, among other extras, during a security upgrade of his estate.

The 2013 security upgrade of Mr. Zuma’s rural home originally was to have cost the state about $2.5 million, but the numerous renovations ballooned the budget to about $23 million.

South Africa’s annual State of the Nation speech, which is attended by dignitaries and high-ranking government officials, provides the president the opportunity to report on the country’s status before a joint gathering of parliament, and marks the beginning of the parliamentary year.

The last time Mr. Zuma addressed parliament was in August, when Mr. Malema and his fellow representatives in their trademark red berets chanted “Pay back the money,” until the National Assembly’s speaker was forced to adjourn proceedings. The EFF holds 25 of parliament’s 400 seats; the ANC controls 249 seats.

Since then, Mr. Zuma has avoided parliament’s lower house, but he would be loath to withdraw from the most prestigious event on the political calendar.

EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi told reporters that his party “will put questions to Zuma during the State of the Nation address” in an unprecedented breach of protocol.

Tough times

Surveys show that the ANC, which has been in power since 1994, is losing support in cities across South Africa. In beer halls in black townships, it is not uncommon for drinkers to shout, “Pay back the money,” whenever Mr. Zuma appears on television.

Though a record number of South African homes have electricity and running water, the average life expectancy among the country’s 48 million people has fallen from 64 years in 1994 to 50 years, lower than those of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The unemployment rate officially stands at 25 percent, but polls suggest it may be double that among youths.

Riots are a daily occurrences, either over the lack of jobs or the poor states of schools and hospitals. The situation has worsened in recent months because the state monopoly that generates electricity has been unable to meet demand, causing blackouts across the country.

Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid — in the past two years the United States alone has given $670 million — statistics show that more South Africans are living in poverty.

City council elections are scheduled for next year, and polls suggest the ANC could lose its hold on Johannesburg and the nation’s capital, Pretoria. The party lost Cape Town to the Democratic Alliance party in 2011.

Columnist and human rights activist Nkosikhulule Nyembezi said the party’s key challenge is unemployment.

“Over the years, while excelling on many fronts, the president has continued to forgo details on job creation,” Mr. Nyembezi said. “And given the high levels of unemployment, we know there are now more people whose lives are blighted by the absence of decent jobs.”

Western concerns

Mr. Malema, the EFF leader, has said his party would nationalize all land — urban and rural — along with the gold, diamond and platinum mines that are among the country’s largest employers. But he has not explained how this would build the economy or help the poor.

In neighboring Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe seized mainly white-owned farms, taking his country from the region’s largest grain exporter to a major recipient of U.N. food aid.

The ANC already has said it will ban foreigners from owning land, a move that could win back some support from the EFF. In January, traders from Pakistan and Somalia had their shops set alight amid claims that migrants were taking work from locals.

But the ruling party has not revealed how it will deal with investors who have bought land on which to build office space. U.S. companies such as McDonald’s Corp., KFC, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. have substantial holdings in South Africa.

Security at Parliament House in Cape Town will be tight, and the government has warned that it will not tolerate any disruption.

On Nov. 13, in an unprecedented move, riot police entered the chamber to evict an EFF member who referred to Mr. Zuma as a thief and refused to withdraw the term. Lawmakers from several opposition parties were roughed up in the scuffle.

The State of the Nation speech takes place in what is known as “a joint sitting,” with members of parliament, traditional leaders, provincial premiers (the equivalent of state governors) and foreign diplomats. The U.S. Embassy in Pretoria has confirmed that U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard will be present.

Radio talk show host Xolani Gwala says the EFF has taken a risk by announcing its plan to publicly interrogate Mr. Zuma about the missing millions.

“This party has painted itself into corner,” Mr. Gwala said during his top-rated drive-time show Wednesday. “Now they have to ask the question or they lose all credibility.”

In an interview on the same station earlier in the day, Mr. Malema said there will be no turning back.

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