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Legislators exchange punches in the house

Guards in white shirts forcibly ejected about 25 members from the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party.

In chaotic scenes, guards in white shirts forcibly ejected about 25 members from the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party who prevented the president from speaking for about an hour.

"We have been patient with you, we have been trying to give you an opportunity to express yourselves but... it is being abused," Speaker Baleka Mbete told the EFF lawmakers before they were thrown out.

The president's annual address to parliament in Cape Town has descended into mayhem for the past three years as the EFF -- dressed in red workers' overalls and berets -- attempt to disrupt Zuma's speech.

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Zuma, head of the ruling ANC party, appeared unbothered by the violence unfolding in the chamber and finally took to the podium with his trademark chuckle.

Shortly before the guards moved in, EFF leader Julius Malema described Zuma as "an incorrigible man rotten to the core".

Malema also turned his ire on Speaker Mbete, telling her: "Your conduct has failed you. You are irrational, impatient, partisan."

Police fired several stun grenades outside parliament to keep rival ANC and EFF supporters apart.

A huge security presence was mobilised on Thursday evening to stop a repeat of last year when clashes erupted on the streets of Cape Town.

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Zuma, 74, has faced growing public criticism over a series of damaging corruption scandals, worsening unemployment levels and slowing economic growth.

In December he beat back an attempt by at least four ministers to oust him, following local elections that delivered the ANC's worst-ever results.

He is set to step down as party leader in December, before the general election in 2019 that will mark the end of his two-term reign as national president.

South Africa, the continent's most industrialised economy, expanded by about 0.4 percent last year. Inflation hit 6.8 percent in December and unemployment has risen to a 13-year high of 27 percent.

Increased numbers of anti-apartheid veterans, ANC activists, trade unions, civil groups and business leaders have urged Zuma to resign.

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"You must know that as a nation we no longer have confidence in your leadership,"Sipho Mila Pityana, leader of the Save SA action group, said on the eve of Zuma's speech.

However Zuma retains strong loyalty among many rank-and-file ANC party members and its lawmakers.

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