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S.Africa’s Zuma vows economic revival in disrupted speech

President Jacob Zuma on Thursday announced plans for “an effective turnaround plan” for South Africa’s ailing economy in an address to the nation disrupted by a walkout by radical lawmakers.

Zuma, who plunged markets into chaos in December when he fired two finance ministers within days, met this week with business leaders in an attempt to avoid a downgrade of the country’s debt to junk status by ratings agencies.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have predicted that South Africa’s growth this year will slide to less than one percent — far below levels needed to deal with unemployment running at 25 percent.

“Importantly, our country seems to be at risk of losing its investment grade status from ratings agencies,” Zuma said when he was finally allowed to speak after chaotic scenes in parliament.

“If that happens, it will become more expensive for us to borrow money from abroad to finance our programmes of building a better life for all especially the poor.”

Lawmakers from the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), dressed in their uniforms of red workers’ overalls and hardhats, noisily interrupted his speech for an hour before being ordered out of the chamber.

“Zuma is no longer a president that deserves the respect from anyone,” EFF leader Julius Malema yelled at the president.

“He has stolen from us, he has corrupted the economy of South Africa, he has made this country a joke and after that, he has laughed at us.”

Zuma shrugged off the protest with his trademark giggle.

But once he got going on his speech, the tenor was sombre, and he pledged that wasteful government expenditure would be cut.

This would include limiting the size and frequency of trips abroad, a possible move of parliament from Cape Town to the administrative capital Pretoria, and getting rid of underperforming state-owned enterprises.

At the same time, black economic empowerment would remain a foundation of economic policy, he said.

– ‘Demon of racism’ –

More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, Zuma also raised the issue of resurgent racial tension — after a storm of anger over a white woman who called black beachgoers “monkeys” on a Facebook post.

“The nation was shaken last month when racism reared its ugly head on social and electronic media, causing untold pain and anger,” he said.

“There is a need to confront the demon of racism.”

Earlier Thursday, police fired stun grenades to disperse angry protesters outside parliament shortly before he delivered his address.

Zuma faces moves in court, in parliament and on the streets to have him impeached or dumped by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Factors fuelling the calls for Zuma to quit include public money spent on his private residence, damage done to the economy when he fired the finance ministers, and government corruption.

His address to parliament came just two days after the Constitutional Court heard a crucial case accusing the president of violating his oath to uphold the constitution.

Two opposition parties took the case to court over Zuma’s initial refusal to obey a ruling by the national ombudswoman that he repay some of the $24 million lavished on his private home at Nkandla in eastern South Africa.

His own lawyers accepted in court that the case had “traumatised the nation,” and conceded that he needed to obey.

The court reserved judgement.

The EFF has pledged to use an adverse ruling by the court to press for Zuma’s impeachment.

Any such attempt however would likely fail in a parliament where Zuma’s ANC holds an overwhelming majority.

But critics hope the groundswell of discontent, expected to result in losses for the ANC in municipal elections later this year, could even lead the party itself to oust Zuma as president.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, dismissed Zuma’s address, saying “he cannot be trusted to grow the economy, create jobs and fight corruption.”