Wounded Zuma seeks to salvage reputation in keynote address

As he prepares to address the South African parliament in his state-of-the-nation speech Thursday, Jacob Zuma is facing one of the darkest moments of his presidency.

Besides having to refund some of the state money spent on upgrading his private home and stifle impeachment calls by the opposition as well as mounting public discontent over his leadership, he’s also under pressure to restore confidence in a stagnating economy and help prevent the nation’s credit rating being downgraded to junk.

Zuma’s address to the National Assembly comes two days after his lawyers confirmed to the nation’s highest court that he would bow to a finding by the nation’s graft ombudsman and admit liability for part of the 215.9 million rand ($13.6 million) spent on his home — something he’d steadfastly refused to do for two years. That followed the blow to his reputation in December when he was forced to backtrack on his decision to replace the respected Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister with a little-known lawmaker after the rand and the nation’s bonds dived.

Reputation ‘Dented’

“His political reputation is seriously dented,’’ Dirk Kotze, a political science professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, the capital, said by phone on Wednesday. “He has, in the past two months, made some serious concessions which is not typical of President Zuma.’’

Several hundred people took part in a protest in Cape Town on Thursday organized by a group campaigning for Zuma to be replaced. A separate group, many of whom wore t-shirts bearing the emblem of the ruling African National Congress, staged a separate march to show their support for the president. Riot police trying to prevent them from storming through steel fencing surrounding the parliamentary complex were pelted with bottles.

Zuma is due to deliver his annual address at 7 p.m. His speech last year was disrupted by members of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, who demanded that he pay back the money on his home, before they were evicted by security personnel. Party lawmakers now plan to demand that Zuma explain his decision to fire Nene and expect to be ejected again, EFF leader Julius Malema told City Press newspaper.

The EFF has also criticized Zuma for his close ties to the Gupta family, which has built a business empire spanning computer equipment, media and mining.

On Thursday, competition regulators disclosed that a company in which Zuma’s son, Duduzane, has a stake is part of the group, along with the Guptas, that’s buying Glencore Plc’s Optimum Coal mine. The transaction had previously attracted criticism from opposition parties because Mines Minister Mosebenzi Zwane said he traveled to Switzerland to meet Glencore officials. Zwane said his intervention was focused on saving jobs.

Zuma met with business leaders on Tuesday to gauge their ideas on what needs to be done to reassure investors and spur growth in an economy that the World Bank expects to expand 0.8 percent this year, the slowest rate since a recession in 2009.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who was reappointed to the post that he’d held from 2009 to 2014 after the December market rout, has said the government will do everything possible to ensure that the nation’s debt isn’t downgraded to junk. Moody’s Investors Service cut the outlook on South Africa’s Baa2 credit rating, the second-lowest investment grade, to negative in December. Standard & Poor’s, which puts the nation’s debt one level below Moody’s, also changed its outlook to negative.

‘Critical Juncture’

“We are at a critical juncture in terms of where we are headed economically,’’ Abdul Waheed Patel, managing director of Ethicore Political Consulting, said by phone from Cape Town. “South Africans will be looking for positive reliable indicators of policy and political intent. Ultimately, it’s about how to achieve a higher growth rate that results in greater economic inclusion.’’

With local government elections due to take place between May and August, Zuma is looking increasingly vulnerable, and he’ll need to provide reassurance that his administration can deal with the challenges the nation faces, according to Daryl Glaser, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“What the nation would like to hear from Zuma is an inspirational speech that shows a degree of self-reflection,’’ Glaser said. “There’s going to be a huge elephant in the National Assembly room due to the recent reversals. He’s going to have to find a way to at least acknowledge that.’’

A former intelligence operative, Zuma took power in May 2009, after winning control of the ANC from Thabo Mbeki. His current term as ANC leader runs until 2017 and as president until 2019.

“Zuma is struggling to reassert himself within the ANC since his disastrous decision to fire finance minister Nhlanhla Nene,’’ according to Ruth Bookbinder, an Africa analyst at Bath, England-based risk consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. His offer to repay the money spent on renovating his private home “underscores the president’s vulnerable position. The chances of him being deposed before the end of his term are not out of the question,’’ she said.

 – Bloomberg