When Jacob Zuma rescheduled his state of the nation address to bask in the reflected glory of tomorrow's 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release, he must have hoped that it would be a triumphant occasion.
It has not turned out that way. Instead, Zuma will speak to a South African public outraged at his private life amid increasing signs that he is losing the confidence of the ruling African National Congress.
The once beloved leader now seems a diminished figure, under pressure to stem his loss of popular support after a botched response to a love child scandal. "After his personal blunder the honeymoon period is over," said an ANC junior cabinet minister, speaking anonymously. "He's let himself down and he let us down."
That view is now commonplace, and it will make for a strange image at Zuma's speech today, when the man who is savagely parodied in cartoons recalling his rape trial and dubbed "Shame of the nation" will share the podium with Nelson Mandela, a man seen as the country's conscience.
The comparison has prompted some analysts to speculate that the current President may emulate the Nobel prize-winner and serve only a single term but for altogether different reasons.
"The contrast between what was and what is, is profound," said Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP who resigned in the wake of the arms sale scandal that was the root of corruption charges that have dogged Mr Zuma for seven years.
"He's been underwhelming as President; the administration appears to be doing absolutely nothing. He sought power to protect himself from legal problems and doesn't have an agenda, he's a policy blank state."
But the greatest problems facing Zuma are much less politically sophisticated. When the openly polygamous 67-year-old married his third wife last month, he did so to barely any public response, despite this being his fifth marriage in total, with another fiancée in waiting. However, subsequent press revelations that he had fathered a four-month-old baby with a woman who is not one of his wives, has been met with widespread anger.
Mr Zuma's initially terse response to the reports and refusal to apologise later became a half apology and finally, grudgingly, an outright "sorry" in an attempt to draw a line under the affair.
"It is unprecedented for the ANC to backtrack like this," said political commentator William Gumede. "They would never apologise to the media or the opposition. This time they were forced to care because it was ordinary ANC members who were angry."
Few observers expect the fiery President to return to the affair in today's address, which will be broadcast live on national television, although several high-ranking ANC officials have lobbied him to make a "genuine apology".
But even if he is able to push that to one side, his problems are mounting. A year after winning an overwhelming electoral majority promising to end the divisions that marked his predecessor Thabo Mbeki's reign and create 500,000 new jobs, Mr Zuma leads a party rife with rival networks and has overseen an economic downturn in which a million jobs were lost. Poor black townships, in areas like Balfour outside Johannesburg that witnessed furious protests over unemployment and poverty prior to last year's elections, have gone up in flames again this week.
The peculiarly South African demand for "service delivery" that encapsulates public frustration with post-apartheid life in the country and dominated the election campaign is still to the fore. It is expected to dominate the State of the Nation speech this afternoon.
Mr Zuma will hope that the change of subject will help bring about a return to the better political weather that characterised the beginning of his period in office. But even those days were fraught. The ANC leader won out over Mr Mbeki in 2008 in a bruising power struggle that saw both men deploy the judiciary, security services, media and party structures in a political fight to the death.
Mr Zuma faces the prospect of having to earn re-election to the ANC leadership at a party congress in 2012 with the first signs of an internal revolt already emerging.
"The ANC has got a wake up call and is asking itself how does it contain future revelations," said Mr Gumede, who believes those who backed him despite the rape charges that had surfaced – Zuma was acquitted in 2005 – had initially believed Mr Zuma's chaotic private life would disappear into the background once the business of government began. "What has changed is that people who voted for him are realising you cannot separate the the two. The scandal has caused paralysis," Mr Gumede said.
But few analysts see any immediate threat to the Zuma presidency. And there is at least one Mandela the President can count on for support, Nelson's grandson Mandla, a Zuma protege and recent ANC MP who has mounted a robust defence of his leader's behaviour on grounds of tradition and customary law. "Has the President done what he needs to do?" he asked. "Yes. He has paid damages to the family for impregnating the woman and will now decide if he wants to pay the bride price (lobola)."
But the discovery of the president's 20th child with Sonono Khoza, the daughter of his friend Irvin Khoza, who heads South Africa's World Cup organising committee, has stretched Mr Zuma's credibility with social conservatives who accept traditional lifestyles – and made the comparisons with his beloved predecessor more jarring than ever.
As one ANC national executive committee member said this week: "Polygamy and promiscuity is not the same thing."Reuse content