Public outrage over President Jacob Zuma's out-of-wedlock child has raised the stakes for his State of the Nation address on Thursday, analysts say.
Public outrage over President Jacob Zuma’s out-of-wedlock child has strained the ruling party and raised the stakes for his State of the Nation address on Thursday, analysts say.
South Africa hardly murmured when its polygamous president married his third wife last month, even with another fiancée waiting in the wings. But news last week of his four-month-old daughter, the 20th child for the 67-year-old president, born to the daughter of top Soccer World Cup organiser Irvin Khoza, has been greeted with headlines like “Shame of the Nation”.
Cartoons depict Zuma at the podium in Parliament, delivering the State of the Nation address while rocking a crib. Editorials question his fitness for office.
“If the president is unable to respect social boundaries such as those created through marriage, how can he be trusted to respect the boundaries erected in terms of the national Constitution’s checks and balances?” Business Day wrote.
Initially defending the love child as a personal matter, Zuma apologised on Saturday, saying he “regretted” the pain he had caused the nation.
But the apology won a lukewarm reception, and the normally gregarious Zuma has studiously avoided public appearances—taking two days’ unscheduled leave last week, and cancelling a tour through a Cape Town township on Monday.
“It’s about the ANC [African National Congress] trying to minimise impromptu public contact and fearing if anything were to happen it would overshadow the State of the Nation address,” said University of Witwatersrand political analyst Susan Booysen.
“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” said Aubrey Matshiqi, of the Centre for Policy Studies.
With strong labour backing, Zuma rose to the top of the ruling ANC two years ago after a bruising leadership battle with former president Thabo Mbeki.
Months later, the party forced Mbeki to resign as head of state.
Zuma took over the job after last year’s general elections, but along the way rankled some of the top ANC, brass who questioned his abilities.
“There has always been this myth that Zuma is loved by everybody,” said political analyst Steven Friedman, of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. “There is a quite significant section of people who didn’t like him, but voted for him because he was the only candidate against Mbeki” for leadership of the ANC, he said.
Even Zuma’s allies in labour unions have appeared at a loss to respond to the latest scandal. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) initially declined to “pass judgement” on Zuma, but reiterated its support for using condoms to fight Aids.
Cosatu welcomed Zuma’s apology, but Matshiqi said the ruling party appeared “one apology away from a leadership crisis”.
“The immediate challenge would be to consolidate the forces that supported him” during his rise to power, Matshiqi added.
Zuma’s speech to Parliament, to be broadcast live during prime-time television, is expected to focus on the creation of decent work as the country recovers from last year’s recession.
Nelson Mandela will be seated nearby, to mark the 20th anniversary of his release from apartheid prison, symbolism Zuma had hoped to seize to promote his political agenda.
Now analysts warn that unless he manages to win public opinion back to his side, Zuma could suffer from the comparison to former president Mandela, still seen as the nation’s ethical beacon.
Booysen said Zuma “is one of our big national symbols, and if people are laughing about this, it affects everyone. “South Africans want to be proud of their president and draw parallels to Madiba, who everyone is proud of.”—Sapa-AFP