President Jacob Zuma delivering The Presidency Budget Vote in Parliament, Cape Town. South Africa. 30/05/2012

President Jacob Zuma’s leadership came under sustained opposition attack during a rowdy session of Parliament on Wednesday when he was accused of failing in his duty to uphold and defend the constitution and urged to drop his bid for re-election by his party.

The assault came after Zuma spoke in support of the Presidency’s more than R1 billion budget, and announced a national “social cohesion and nation building summit” in Kliptown, Soweto, in July.

It would be a platform “to discuss how we can build a new nation from the ashes of racism and hatred”, said Zuma, whose dignity has been at the centre of the storm that has raged over the art work The Spear.

The ANC’s handling of the controversy provided a ready weapon for Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota.

He has infuriated ANC MPs by attacking Zuma over a “shocking failure” to uphold the constitution and defending the rights of artist Brett Murray, who depicted the president with exposed genitals, gallery director Liza Essers and City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, who published the picture.

Near-pandemonium broke out when Lekota compared the ANC’s protest march over the painting to tactics used in Hitler’s Germany.

Zuma had not uttered a word of disapproval over his party leaders and cabinet members resorting to “fascist-style” means of threatening people who were exercising their rights and waiting for the court to hand down judgment.

Lekota – accused of “hate speech” and treating the sitting “like a rally” – had to beg Deputy Speaker Nomaindia Mfeketo for protection: “I can’t be humiliated in front of you and you don’t do anything.”

Coming to Zuma’s defence, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande asked for a ruling whether such a serious statement about the president could be made. Later, his SACP colleague Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin accused Lekota of channelling the “underbelly of the DA”.

Cronin made it clear the episode was not about legalities or aesthetics. It had “caused great emotional hurt and opened up unhealed wounds” – demonstrated by advocate Gcina Malindi’s breakdown in court. All, but especially white South Africans, needed to understand that, Cronin said.

Earlier in the debate, an unsmiling Zuma sat as DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko linked his “failure of leadership” to economic hardship among citizens whose faith in him had “been shaken” by a lack of progress on jobs, economic growth and corruption.

“South Africa is facing a crisis of leadership… The national government is teetering under the weight of mismanagement and poor decision-making,” Mazibuko claimed.

She challenged Zuma to release the report of the judicial inquiry into the arms deal “at the same time that he receives it” and asked why SAPS crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli was suspended only after an NGO went to court.

“The president has time and again failed the constitutional test of accountability that our entire system of government is built upon,” Mazibuko said.

“The president should be using the full powers of his executive office to shine the bright light of forensic investigation into suspected criminal activity by Mr Mdluli and others… ”

Instead of using his power to investigate “a titanic power struggle” engulfing the security services, Zuma continued “to preside over a sinister state within a state”.

“His problem is that he must constantly reshuffle the security services to stay on top,” Mazibuko said.

A true leader led his party, while Zuma “simply follows his”.

“He is forced to bow before unelected Cosatu members and others. He is unable to drive policy that runs counter to the disparate factions that brought him to power. He will never be able to stamp his authority on his government because these factions do not share a common purpose,” she charged.

Zuma had promised jobs, but “the only job we seem to hear about is his: Will he keep it? Will he lose it? Who might challenge him?”.

She urged him to “look deep within his heart” and not to stand for re-election at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December. “This is what the people of South Africa want, and what many people in his own party want.”

United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said there were signs that Zuma’s office was “losing its dignity and authority”.

He questioned how the ANC and alliance partners could undermine the cabinet’s decision to go ahead with e-tolling – supported in Parliament by most political parties, but ditched after leaks that the ANC and Cosatu’s investment arms were linked to it.

“If you were consulted, why were the ministers of transport and finance not informed… If these ministers were responsible for the fiasco, why have they not been shown the door?”

It was worse when Zuma and his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, contradicted each other over whether it was ethical for the ANC to do business with the government.

“There is a clear conflict of interest when the party that governs is first in the line for government tenders,” Holomisa said, suggesting his party might approach the courts on the matter.

Zuma is expected to reply to the debate on Thursday.

Political Bureau