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Heavy security at S.Africa’s parliament as showdown looms

South Africa’s parliament was under tight security Thursday ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address — but it was inside the national assembly where trouble loomed, not outside.

A group of radical lawmakers, led by populist firebrand Julius Malema, have vowed to prevent Zuma from speaking until he has answered questions about the $24 million of taxpayers’ money spent on “security upgrades” at his private residence.

The last time that happened — in August — riot police were sent in and the session collapsed in chaos.

This time there is even more at stake, as the nation will be watching on live television.

It is the formal opening of parliament, which has become something of a fashion show where lawmakers parade in their best frocks, suits or traditional dress, as they make their way over the red carpet amid the pomp and ceremony of flypasts and canon fire.

The proceedings inside parliament will also be broadcast live, and viewer numbers are expected to reach a record high as the nation tunes in — not so much to hear what Zuma has to say about the state of the nation, as to see what happens.

The 25 Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), MPs, who punch way above their weight in the 400-seat parliament dominated by Zuma’s African National Congress, will provide a striking sartorial counterpoint — the men in their usual uniforms of red overalls, gumboots and hard hats and the women in maids’ outfits.

When moves were made to ban their outfits from parliament, Malema threatened that they would turn up in the nude. The proposal was promptly shelved.

As tension mounted in the days ahead of the looming confrontation, church leaders and others tried to broker peace, but Malema has repeatedly said he will not back down — at one stage going so far as to say he wouldn’t allow Zuma to “clear his throat” before pressing for answers to his questions.

His party said in a statement it had learned that police would be called in to parliament to “manhandle and arrest” EFF members.

Traffic was barred from streets for several blocks around the historic national assembly precinct in downtown Cape Town — dominated by a bronze bust of late liberation hero Nelson Mandela — with armed police stationed strategically throughout the area.

Although similar measures have been taken for the address in previous years, the parliamentary leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, Mmusi Maimane, said that this year “the security is insane, it is absolutely insane”.

His party has expressed concern that any debacle in parliament will be an “embarrassment” to Mandela’s South Africa.