South African President Jacob Zuma has started his State of the Nation speech, after briefly walking out of the chamber as members of the opposition delayed proceedings by raising questions ahead of the much-anticipated address.
The Speaker of Parliament warned members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party to allow the house to proceed with the reading of the annual speech, failure to which they should leave the chamber.
Earlier on Thursday, police had fired stun grenades to disperse crowds outside parliament in Cape Town as opposition followers clashed with Zuma supporters.
Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from outside the parliament, said that anti-Zuma protesters are angry at government corruption, the state of the flagging economy and the president’s use of public money to renovate his private residence.
“Analysts are calling this Jacob Zuma’s toughest State of the Nation yet,” Miller said.
“The country is facing a number of issues, many of them centred around the economy,” she continued.
“We’re looking at a possible recession and also a possible downgrade to junk status by rating agencies. Those protests we saw over the course of the day centred very much around those issues, including racism [and] land redistribution.”
Zuma’s speech is expected to highlight policies to revive a flagging economy, hampered by years of weak growth, at a time the president is under fire over a taxpayer-funded $23m upgrade to his private home.
On Tuesday, South Africa’s Constitutional Court reserved its decision on whether Zuma should pay back state money he used to upgrade his residence at Nkandla.
The court said on Tuesday that it will announce the decision at later date once it has been made.
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 money lavished on his private home.
After months of denying wrongdoing, Zuma promised last week to repay money spent on improvements unrelated to security.
Opposition parties have asked the country’s top court to rule on whether the president broke the law.
The opposition is hoping public anger over the upgrade and the nation’s economic woes will translate into votes in upcoming local elections.
Investors also want to know why Zuma fired two finance ministers in one week in December.
Minister Nhlanhla Nene was replaced by relatively unknown lawmaker David van Rooyen, sparking a selling frenzy in the markets. Zuma swiftly replaced van Rooyen with the respected Pravin Gordhan.
Earlier this week, Julius Malema, the leader of the EFF, said he would disrupt Zuma’s speech – as he did last year – if the president failed to explain his moves at the finance ministry.
“Every time he turns a page we are going to speak,” Malema told reporters.
“When he goes to the next page, we will speak. If he speaks for 25 minutes there will be an additional 25 minutes for the EFF.”