S. Africa president Zuma allays fears after health scare, but signs are he is damaged goods

Zuma has been battered, and is the butt of comedian’s jokes and over-the-top cartoonists’ caricatures.

SOUTH Africa’s President Jacob Zuma on Sunday declared that he was in “perfect condition”, in his first comments allaying concerns over his health following his hospitalisation in June.

Zuma told the public broadcaster SABC television in a year-end interview that the elections earlier in the year had taken a toll on him after he went into “overdrive”.

“We did overstretch ourselves, and I think there was fatigue thereafter,” he said in the interview broadcast Sunday night.

“Indeed there was a period where I really took it easy. I couldn’t say my health was in its perfect condition…(but) I’m in perfect condition now.”

Due to the exhaustion the 72-year old was forced at one time in June to hand more duties to his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa.

But it is not clear that Zuma’s comments will put concerns about his fitness to rest.

The president has visibly lost weight in recent months, and in a sign that he fully alive to talk of succession, he dismissed public sentiments that he might be lining up Ramaphosa to take over as he appears to be delegating him more tasks than normal.

There is “no hidden agenda,” he said. “The deputy president has the energy, has everything that it takes that you can… delegate without any worry,” he said.

Zuma last week assigned Ramaphosa to oversee the running of three troubled state companies, including the energy provider Eskom following weeks of rolling electricity blackouts that have cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars.

Power shortage is regularly cited as one of the weaknesses hampering South Africa’s growth.

 Africa’s second biggest economy is expected to expand by just 1.4% this year.

But South Africans will be able to cotton on to signs of the passing of the baton. Its revered statesman Nelson Mandela, who served only one term, orchestrated a drip-drip hand over of power to his deputy Thabo Mbeki, and by the fourth year of his five-year term, the latter was de facto president.

By 1998 Mandela with a year to go on his first (and what was also to be his last) term, Mandela, 80 then, was older than Zuma today, who is 72. But he was a reluctant president so less subject to pressure, and was happy to bask in the adulation of his country and the world.

Zuma has been battered, and is the butt of comedian’s jokes and over-the-top cartoonists’ caricatures.

And corruption and women troubles have all combined to diminish his authority and national standing.

Thus on Sunday he vowed to stop opposition lawmakers, who had hounded him out of parliament, to disrupt the national assembly. It is inconceivable that any of his successors would have been treated so shabbily.

Zuma was in August forced to abandon his speech and leave parliament when lawmakers from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party yelled “Pay back the money”. 

The heckling came as Zuma was being grilled over the $23 million of taxpayers money spent on “security upgrades” at his private residence.

In November, the national assembly again descended into chaos ahead of a debate over the president’s palatial Nkandla country house in the southeast of the country. An opposition MP yelled that Zuma was “thief” - and had to all but be forcefully carried out of the House after she rejected the Speaker’s order to leave the chamber.

In the Sunday interview with SABC, Zuma said that these incidents would no longer be tolerated.

“That’s not going to be allowed,” he said. “It can’t happen, otherwise it will be chaos in this country.”

“We have a country, we have authority here, we have to do the governing of the country,” he said, without outlining the measures he plans to take.

Zuma is due to deliver his state of nation address to parliament on February 12 next year.

Recent reports indicate that his ruling African National Congress (ANC) is broke, and polls show it is beginning to bleed support at a speed that is worrying some of its leaders.

A report by South Africa’s public protector had called on Zuma to repay some of the millions spent on items such as a swimming pool, amphitheatre and cattle pen at his rural home in Nkandla.

Zuma said he had not violated any regulations.

The February speech could be Zuma’s last shot at reclaiming his credibility, and if the opposition succeed in shouting him off the floor of Parliament, or the riot police has to be called in again, then analysts  say his party might conclude that he is damaged goods and hurting them, and might push for an early handover.

-Reporting by AFP

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