South Africans hold a rally in support of axed finance minister Pravin Gordhan © AFP
President Jacob Zuma faced a backlash after his decision to sack Pravin Gordhan, his finance minister, and eight other cabinet members, rocked South Africa’s markets and threatened the biggest crisis in the ruling African National Congress under his leadership.
Mr Zuma used the reshuffle to purge growing numbers of his critics, but the move was a political gamble that risks triggering a revolt within the ANC and fracturing the party ahead of elections in two years.
“This could be the day that the ANC lost the 2019 election,” said William Gumede, chair of the Democracy Works Foundation.
Business leaders warned the dismissal of Mr Gordhan, who was leading efforts to restore confidence in South Africa, could cause turmoil in the stagnating economy and hasten a credit downgrade to junk status. The rand, which had been one of the best performing emerging market currencies, plummeted about 7 per cent this week — its worst fall since late 2015.
Malusi Gigaba, who was home affairs minister and is an ally of the president with little financial experience, will replace Mr Gordhan at the Treasury. He become the fourth finance minister in two years.
Mr Zuma justified the reshuffle — announced at midnight on Thursday — by saying it would “improve efficiency and effectiveness”. But his critics fear the move was designed to have a more pliable hand in charge of the state’s coffers as his second and final term as president reaches its final stages. Since taking office in 2009, Mr Zuma has been dogged by allegations of corruption, cronyism and patronage.
“We hope more and more South Africans will make it absolutely clear that our country is not for sale,” Mr Gordhan said on Friday, alluding to the concerns.
He dismissed an intelligence report that suggested he was working to undermine Mr Zuma and was used to justify his dismissal as “absolute nonsense”. Adding that he first heard about his dismissal on television, he said the Treasury had been subjected to the “most horrific attacks” in the past year.
He received support from Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president who is a frontrunner to succeed Mr Zuma as the ANC’s head at party elections scheduled for December.
In a rare critique of his scandal-prone boss, Mr Ramaphosa said it was “totally unacceptable that [the president] fired someone like Gordhan, who has served the country excellently, for his own gain and survival”.
Mr Gordhan was reappointed to the Treasury in December 2015 to restore stability after the president’s decision to abruptly replace Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister with a little-known backbencher wiped billions of dollars off South Africa’s markets.
Since then, Mr Gordhan and Mr Zuma have been locked in year-long power struggle over Treasury efforts to root out cronyism in state-owned companies. The ministry has also resisted the president’s plans for new nuclear power plants it says the country cannot afford.
In addition, Mr Gordhan has pushed back against the influence in government of the Gupta business family, who are friends of Mr Zuma and have been accused of seeking to influence political appointments and control the award of lucrative state contracts.
In an apparent reference to allegations last year that the Guptas offered his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, a bribe to take the Treasury’s top job in 2015, Mr Gordhan said South Africans would support Mr Jonas for refusing “a bag of cash”.
Mr Jonas was also replaced in Thursday’s reshuffle by Sifiso Buthelezi, a former chair of the state-owned passenger rail agency.
The Guptas have repeatedly denied the allegations. But there was speculation that the family may have influenced Mr Zuma’s thinking with the latest reshuffle.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary-general, fuelled those suspicions when he told 702 Talk Radio that the list of ministers the president put forward was “developed somewhere else and it’s given to us [the ANC leadership] to legitimise it”.
Mr Mantashe said Mr Zuma had ignored party warnings not to dismiss Mr Gordhan — underlining the disarray within the former liberation movement that has dominated South African politics since the first democratic election in 1994.
Solly Mapaila, deputy general secretary of the South African Communist party, an ANC partner in a governing alliance, told 702 radio: “Quite clearly, South Africans need to take action against the possibility of the looting of the Treasury.”
Analysts say Mr Zuma, who has been accused of allowing the ANC to be taken over by patronage networks, took the risk of the reshuffle in a bid to firm up his power base before the party’s December elective conference.
Mr Zuma, a ruthless political operator, has previously shrugged off numerous scandals, including millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money being spent on his private Nkandla residence and a ruling by the public protector, or state ombudsman, that he violated the constitution.
But the voices of dissent appear to be growing.
Unions, civil society groups and student bodies have called for protests against Mr Zuma, while Mr Gordhan said South Africans should “organise”.
The Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, the two main opposition groups, both said they would table no-confidence votes against the president in parliament.
Business groups, from the Chamber of Mines to the CEO Initiative, a group that including heads of the country’s largest banks and the JSE, also rushed to condemn the reshuffle.
Mr Zuma’s actions “have put our country into turmoil,” said Cas Cavoodia, head of the Banking Association of South Africa.
Still, the criticism from business may do little to faze Mr Zuma or his allies.
“They see the markets and foreign investors as kind of the enemy,” Mr Gumede said