JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Opposition lawmakers heckled South African President Jacob Zuma during a parliamentary session Thursday in which questions were raised about more than $20 million in state spending on his private home.
“Pay back the money!” chanted members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a party that wants to redistribute resources to the poor and entered parliament for the first time after elections in May.
Dressed in red overalls and berets, the new party’s members have become a rowdy presence in the South African parliament, where lawmakers are supposed to observe formal question-and-answer guidelines and address one another as “Honorable Member.”
The leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters is Julius Malema, a former ally-turned-critic of Zuma. Malema was the former head of the youth league of the ruling African National Congress, but was kicked out of the party several years ago after he was deemed to be to be divisive.
“We’re here to ask questions and we need answers. Please!” Malema said in parliament on Thursday. Malema has had his own brushes with the law, including reports that he failed to pay taxes on time.
The uproar forced parliament to suspend the session after speaker Baleka Mbete grew increasingly frustrated with lawmakers from the Economic Freedom Fighters, some of whom stood up and banged plastic construction helmets on their desks.
“I will throw you out of the house if you don’t listen!” said Mbete, who finally called in security to clear the hall.
In March, South Africa’s state watchdog agency released a report concluding that Zuma inappropriately benefited from state funding and should pay back some money for alleged security upgrades at the president’s rural Nkandla residence.
Zuma says he has delivered a response to the parliamentary speaker about the spending at his home, but has yet to say whether he will pay back any money. Zuma has denied any wrongdoing in the spending, saying government security officials controlled the project. Some construction, however, had nothing to do with security, including an amphitheater, a visitors’ center, a chicken run and an area for cattle, according to the watchdog agency.
Despite the scandal, Zuma led the African National Congress to another comfortable victory in the elections in May. The party has dominated politics since the end of white minority rule 20 years ago but has lost some luster because of concerns about corruption, mismanagement and a gulf between the poor and wealthy.
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