In Cape Town, former South African President Nelson Mandela attends President… (Schalk Van Zuydam / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — On the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's inspiriting release from prison Thursday, South Africa confronted a sobering reality.
President Jacob Zuma, with a sex scandal hanging over his head, delivered his annual state of the nation address to Parliament in Cape Town. He promised better schools, a responsive public service sector, longer lives, lower crimes rates -- in sum, all the same hopes that Mandela's Feb. 11, 1990, release had symbolized.
Mandela, now a 91-year-old elder statesman, sat in Parliament unsmiling, listening and holding a copy of Zuma's speech up to his face to read along. He laid the pages aside only when Zuma paid tribute to Mandela's achievements.
What should have been a triumphant moment seemed overshadowed not so much by Zuma's recent apology for fathering a child out of wedlock, but by the mountain of work still ahead.
Zuma, 67, already has three wives and a fiancee. The child he fathered with a prominent banker, the daughter of an old friend, is widely reported to be his 20th.
After initially dismissing news reports about the child, he was forced to apologize over the weekend.
The pressure of the recent scandal, Thursday's historic anniversary and widespread criticism that he has done little to address South Africa's dismal health and education systems, seemed to weigh heavily on Zuma as he arrived for his speech.
Appearing nervous, he repeatedly wrung his hands and pursed his lips. He lost his place at one point during the address, stopped, shuffled the pages and started again on another paragraph.
Declaring a "year of action," he said the nation must unite to make the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, which South Africa is hosting, a great success in Mandela's honor.
Since Zuma became president, the ruling African National Congress and its partners have been divided.
Protests in black townships over the lack of government services have grown in recent months.
Zuma's personal style is that of a listener and conciliator, but he's facing criticism that he is not enough of a doer.
His failure to stem the ANC battles, or to address the problems in education, healthcare and services delivery, have raised questions about his leadership ability.
An editorial in the Business Day newspaper said Zuma often remained silent on key issues so as not to offend influential lobbies.
"Trying to be everything to every man and woman in the republic has turned Zuma into a prevaricator," it said.
"A number of promises were made before last year's election and a vast amount of hot air was emitted on how they should be fulfilled. Yet there has been precious little actually done, and where there has been decisive action, it has all too often been ill-considered and badly implemented," the editorial said. "It is time for Zuma to make his choices and lead."
At last year's state of the nation address, Zuma promised 500,000 jobs.
Instead, the South African economy has lost 900,000, thanks to the global economic crisis.
Zuma claimed that his government had actually created 480,000 "job opportunities" in the public sector. He promised more labor-intensive public works projects.
He also pledged action to protect the poor from increases in electricity prices, clear delivery targets for government ministers, continuing measures to mitigate the recession, improved education and more police.
"This year, 2010, shall be a year of action," he said.
"The defining feature of this administration will be that it knows where people live and understands their needs and works faster. Governments must work harder, smarter and faster," Zuma said.