JOHANNESBURG – South Africa‘s parliament descended into chaos on Thursday, with opposition lawmakers denouncing President Jacob Zuma as a “scoundrel” and “rotten to the core” because of corruption allegations and then brawling with guards who dragged them out of the chamber.
The raucous scenes unfolded on national television as opposition legislators tried to stop Zuma from addressing the chamber, repeatedly insulting the president and declaring him unfit for office. In the surrounding streets of Cape Town, police and hundreds of military forces patrolled to guard against protesters who want Zuma to quit.
Security teams eventually were called into the chamber to remove red-clad members of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, some of whom threw punches and pounded guards with plastic helmets.
“Out! Out!” they shouted.
“Finally,” said a laughing Zuma, who then started an annual address on the economy and other national matters.
A politically weakened figure, Zuma has faced calls to resign even from factions of the ruling party. Some ANC members blame Zuma’s scandals for the party’s poor performance in local elections in August, in which it lost control of several key metropolitan areas.
Critics condemned an announcement by Zuma’s office that 441 members of the military would assist police in maintaining order during the speech and the opening of parliament. The military has previously deployed for the event, but the security operation was among the largest in recent years.
While at least one group of protesters scuffled with police who blocked their path, the streets were mostly calm before the speech, in contrast to the events later in parliament.
Zuma is “rotten to the core,” said Julius Malema, leader of the EFF. Other opposition legislators described the president as a “scoundrel” and a “constitutional delinquent.”
Earlier, police near parliament used stun grenades to disperse ruling party members and opposition groups who were fighting.
The hours leading up to Zuma’s speech featured the pomp associated with the annual opening of parliament, when dignitaries walk on a red carpet and pose for cameras in an impromptu fashion show.
Zuma has been under scrutiny for an allegedly improper relationship with the Guptas, a business family of Indian immigrants that has been accused of meddling in top government appointments. The president has denied wrongdoing.
Zuma, who took office in 2009, also reimbursed the state more than $500,000 in a scandal over upgrades to his private home.
The president’s speech addressed numerous sources of frustration for many South Africans, including the delivery of basic services and an economy that has stalled. He said he expects 1.3 per cent growth in 2017, after just 0.5 per cent last year.