CAPE TOWN, South Africa | Armed police officers entered the South African parliament Thursday and forcibly removed opposition lawmakers who prevented President Jacob Zuma from delivering his annual State of the Nation speech by asking him to address a corruption scandal.
In an unprecedented breach of protocol, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters — which holds 25 of parliament’s 400 seats — asked Mr. Zuma at the start of his speech when he would repay $20 million in public money spent on upgrading his private rural home. They were led by Julius Malema, a former youth leader of Mr. Zuma’s African National Congress, which has ruled post-apartheid South Africa since 1994.
After police removed Mr. Malema and his party’s members, Mmusi Maimane — leader of the country’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance — took to the floor to declare the police action unconstitutional.
Mr. Maimane asked if the National Assembly’s speaker had ordered the police to remove the EFF, and when he did not receive a satisfactory answer, he led his party’s 89 parliamentary members from the chamber.
The EFF previously had vowed to disrupt the speech in order to draw more attention to the corruption scandal embroiling Mr. Zuma, which has rocked the country over the past year.
Mr. Zuma has refused to admit liability even though the Office of the Public Protector — an anti-corruption watchdog in his own government — has ruled that the money was wrongly used and should be repaid. He has denied any wrongdoing, saying that security officials were in charge of the project.
The 2013 security upgrade of Mr. Zuma’s home in Nkandla originally was to have cost the state about $2.5 million, but the cost ballooned the budget to about $23 million because of the addition of an amphitheater, a swimming pool and a visitors center, among other extras.
Meanwhile, his ruling ANC has faced increased criticism over a host of woes that have beset the country, one of Africa’s key economic and military powers:
⦁ 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 occurrence, either over the lack of jobs or the poor states of schools and hospitals.
⦁ 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.
The start of Thursday’s speech had been delayed because of opposition allegations that the cellphone signal in the parliament had been jammed. The signal was later restored.
House Speaker Baleka Mbete-Kgositsile, a member of the ANC, said Thursday that she would not allow any questions before Mr. Zuma delivered his speech. But when Mr. Malema asked which parliamentary rule she was applying, it became clear Ms. Mbete-Kgositsile didn’t know.
Mr. Zuma was able to start speaking more than an hour after the speech’s scheduled start, and began by promising that freedom would be protected in South Africa.
The ANC’s 249 members of parliament remained for the speech, along with some traditional and state leaders. Senior foreign diplomats also were present, including U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard.