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Can Jacob Zuma wrap himself in Nelson Mandela's cloak?

South Africans celebrated the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison Thursday. President Jacob Zuma has strategically scheduled his State of the Union speech for the same day.

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In the absence of good news, Zuma has allowed himself and his reputation to be defined by continuous scandals among his political appointees, and also controversial stories about Zuma’s personal life – including an admitted affair outside his three concurrent marriages, producing a 20th child – have taken over .

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One State of the Nation speech cannot erase that, but it could potentially give South Africans hope that the man in charge of their country does have a strategic plan for the road ahead.

To take the sting out of the scandal, Zuma issued an apology for fathering infant daughter with the adult daughter of South African soccer boss, and personal friend, Irvin Khoza. “"I deeply regret the pain that I have caused to my family, the ANC, the (tripartite) alliance and South Africans in general."

Subsequent messages from his office have focused on the positive. Evaluations Minister Collins Chabane told reporters that Zuma would lay out the broader outlines for his government’s priorities, while leaving the specifics to his ministers. “"For us it’s to build an efficient, caring and more responsive administration,” Mr. Chabane said.

The buzz on Twitter

The President’s office even ventured into the social media world of Twitter. “President Zuma is in his study at Genadendal putting the finishing touches to tonight's State of the Nation Address,” tweeted a message from @PresidencyZA, the official Twitter page of the South African president.

But unlike the halls of parliament, where respectful decorum is strictly followed, Twitter is a cacophonous free-for-all, and South Africans have been sending rather less hopeful messages about their expectations for Mr. Zuma’s speech.

“Wonder if he will be addressing just his kids or us too?” wrote a Twitter user named @ajkock.

A writer named “Black Sash” writes, “Sash asks Zuma to tell country in State of the Nation how Soccer World Cup will benefit the 5 million unemployed in SA?”

Adam Habib, vice chancellor of University of Johannesburg says that Zuma has “a challenge, which is that there is a feeling that there isn’t much leadership, on the big issues, such as economic policy, unemployment, service delivery, and the global economic crisis. You have to say, these are our dilemmas, and here are the two or three options we have and this is what we have to do.”

Will Zuma do that? “No,” says Mr. Habib.

Given past statements by ANC ministers and the fact that Zuma has timed his speech to the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s release, Zuma is likely to play up the positive. “I think he’ll play up the Mandela’s release, rah-rah, the World Cup is coming and we have to put our best foot forward, and he’ll give passing mention of unemployment, rural development, health care and crime,” says Habib.

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