CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - Hundreds of protesters marched outside South Africa's parliament on Thursday hours before an annual state-of-the-nation speech by President Jacob Zuma, whom they accuse of corruption and mismanaging the country's flagging economy.
Zuma's speech, scheduled to be televised nationally at 1700 GMT, comes amid growing criticism over a taxpayer-funded 250 million (then $23 million) upgrade to his private home and years of weak economic growth in Africa's most industrialized country.
Investors also want to know why Zuma fired two finance ministers in one week this December. Minister Nhlanhla Nene was replaced by relatively unknown lawmaker David van Rooyen, sparking a selling frenzy in the markets. Zuma swiftly replaced van Rooyen with the respected Pravin Gordhan.
BNP Paribas Securities SA economist Jeffrey Schultz said the reshuffle "brought into question political stability of this economy and in particular the independence of national treasury in helping set policy in South Africa."
"The markets will be looking for some level of commitment from government that it remains committed to sustainable fiscal policy and a generally pro-business, pro-investment environment," he said.
South Africa's rand currency hit a record low of 17.9950 in January after weakening by more than a quarter to the dollar last year. The central bank has forecast growth to reach only 0.9 percent this year. Unemployment is at 25 percent.
The agricultural sector is reeling under the worst drought in decades, forcing Africa's top grain producer to import maize.
The mining sector, hit hard by slowing demand from China, is shedding jobs and shutting unviable mines.
The opposition is hoping anger over the nation's economic woes will translate into votes in upcoming local elections.
Julius Malema, the fiery leader of the far-left opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, said last week he would disrupt Zuma's speech, as he did last year, if Zuma fails to explain why he fired the finance ministers.
The speaker of parliament has vowed to quash any attempts to disrupt the proceedings. Last year security officials removed Malema and other EFF MPs.
In the lead-up to the speech, police set up barbed wire barricades to keep protesters away from parliament. But about 300 marchers walked through Cape Town's main street, shouting: "Zuma Must Fall!" and waving placards. Elsewhere in the city, pro-Zuma marchers also began to gather.