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.

Schalk van Zuydam/AP
South African President Jacob Zuma seen before a meeting held at Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday.
Schalk van Zuydam/AP
A statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela stands outside the Groot Drakenstein prison near the town of Franschhoek, South Africa, Wednesday. A celebration will be held Thursday here to commemorate Nelson Mandela's release from prison twenty years ago, on Feb. 11, 1990.

It’s a common political trick to wrap oneself in the hallowed garments of previous political giants. President Obama evoked a certain John F. Kennedy charm, with a dash of Martin Luther King Jr., during his 2008 presidential campaign. President Bush evoked Franklin Roosevelt’s cool resolve in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

And South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, by scheduling his State of the Nation address on the 20th anniversary of the release of former President Nelson Mandela – the most unifying political figure in South Africa’s history – is hoping that some of Mr. Mandela’s gravitas rubs off as well.

If it works, it couldn’t come at a better time.

Mr. Zuma has been dogged by a sagging economy, his party’s failure to improve the lives of the poor, and by a spate of sex scandals. Wittingly or not, by comparing himself to Mandela, Zuma has set the bar of expectations very high indeed.

“The ANC itself has acknowledged what the central issues are, which is that the way public services are administered is inadequate,” says Steven Friedman, a political analyst and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. “The reason we have these protests, is that people are not being listened to and people are not being paid attention to.”

Like President Obama, Zuma came to office less than a year ago on the shoulders of voters who had long felt disenfranchised from their government, and who gave their vote to a man who promised to look after the poorest of the poor. He was elected on promises to create jobs, improve schools and health care, and to get the economy moving again.

While Zuma won applause from the business community for choosing an economic team that eschewed populist measures like nationalizing the mining industry, the past year has otherwise not been kind to Zuma. Far from creating half a million new jobs since his election, Zuma watched the global recession eat away 900,000 jobs from South Africa, leaving an official unemployment rate of 24 percent but realistically a country where only 41 perecent of the working population are employed.

Defined by scandals

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 .

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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