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Zuma's Parliament speech highlights contrast with Mandela

Former South African president Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel sit in the gallery at the opening of Parliament in Cape Town on Feb. 11, 2010.


When he timed his state-of-the-nation speech for the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, President Jacob Zuma was hoping to bask in the glow of adulation for the saintly liberation leader.

Instead, after an untimely sex scandal and mounting criticism of his behaviour, Mr. Zuma's speech was overshadowed by the stark contrast between his own failings and the moral example of his predecessor.

Mr. Mandela, frail but still alert at the age of 91, made a rare appearance Thursday night in the public gallery of South Africa's Parliament as he watched Mr. Zuma give his annual speech to the nation. He was greeted by thunderous cheers from the audience, who sang a song of praise for the man who led South Africa out of apartheid. "Nelson Mandela, there is none like you," the politicians sang as applause filled the chamber.

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Earlier in the day at the prison near Cape Town where Mr. Mandela walked to freedom in 1990, hundreds of his political followers retraced his footsteps by marching jubilantly through the same prison gates. Many raised their fists, recreating the historic moment when Mr. Mandela ended his 27 years of imprisonment.

But as South Africans celebrated the anniversary, they were vividly reminded of how Mr. Mandela's successors have failed to complete the transformation that he began.

In his address, Mr. Zuma repeatedly praised Mr. Mandela and quoted his words. Yet two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa faces the same issues: poverty, corruption, unemployment, poor health care and high crime. Mr. Zuma acknowledged that the life expectancy of South Africans has plunged from 60 years at the end of apartheid to less than 50 today, largely because of the AIDS crisis that has devastated the country.

In his first year as president, Mr. Zuma has vowed to fight AIDS by massively expanding access to AIDS medicine and by launching an ambitious campaign of public testing to help people know whether they need treatment.

But he is facing strong criticism for jeopardizing the AIDS education campaign with his own sexual adventures, especially his latest confession that he fathered a child last year out of wedlock. South Africa's Roman Catholic bishops joined the chorus of criticism Thursday, accusing Mr. Zuma of setting a poor example in a country with more than five million HIV-positive people, the highest number in the world.

During his speech, the audience tittered with amusement when Mr. Zuma gave thanks to the chairman of South Africa's World Cup organizing committee, Irvin Khoza. Although it wasn't mentioned in the speech, Mr. Khoza is the father of the woman whose affair with Mr. Zuma led to the out-of-wedlock baby.

Last week, Mr. Zuma apologized to the nation for his affair with the woman, which the South African media are now referring to as "Babygate." He is the father of 20 children, by official count, but not all have been publicly identified, and the number of mothers of his children is not officially known. A Johannesburg newspaper, The Star, on Thursday reported the identity of two of the 20 children, but it said their mother refused to confirm her relationship with Mr. Zuma.

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As he arrived on a red carpet outside Parliament for his speech - his first significant public appearance since the sex scandal erupted - Mr. Zuma smiled and waved to spectators. But commentators on South Africa's ETV television channel described the response from the crowd as "muted." Said one: "It doesn't seem that the people are reciprocating as much as before."

Mr. Zuma is a polygamist with three wives, and is engaged to a fourth. His supporters have defended his polygamy as a Zulu cultural tradition. But when he arrived at Parliament Thursday, only one of his wives was by his side.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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