South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has come under mounting pressure over his decision to sack Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, in a dramatic cabinet reshuffle after days of speculation that rocked the country’s markets and currency.
A statement from the president’s office in the early hours of Friday said Zuma had replaced Gordhan with Malusi Gigaba, former minister of home affairs. Sfiso Buthelezi was also appointed as deputy finance minister, a post previously held by Mcebisi Jonas.
In a televised statement, Zuma, the head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), said he was making room for new talent and ideas, as he announced changes to 10 of the country’s 35 ministries, including energy, police and tourism.
“The changes bring some younger MPs and women into the national executive in order to benefit from their energy, experience and expertise,” he said.
But Zuma’s move to replace Gordhan, respected by many as a responsible steward of an economy facing possible credit rating downgrades, drew widespread criticism – even within ANC’s ranks.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is one of the leading candidates to replace Zuma as ANC president, expressed his “strong objection” to Gordhan’s removal, describing it as “totally, totally unacceptable”.
The comments by Ramaphosa, who usually publicly backs Zuma, were a sign of deepening division in the ANC that are likely to worsen until the party elects a new leader in December.
“Divisions within the ANC have been laid bare this week, and despite party leaders and allies warning against Gordhan’s sacking the president has done what he wanted to, stamping his authority on cabinet and the ruling party,” Al Jazeera’s Tania Page, reporting from Johannesburg, said.
Pressure has been growing on Zuma after he recalled Gordhan, who has a strong reputation as a bulwark against corruption, from a trade trip in London earlier this week. The recall caused South Africa’s rand to lose nearly five percent.
South Africa’s two main opposition parties also took aim at the president, with one appealing to the highest court to order impeachment proceedings and the other announcing it will launch a vote of no confidence in Zuma.
“Zuma has bowed to the whims of those who determined to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and jobless,” the country’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, tweeted after the announcement. The party on Thursday said it would launch a vote of no confidence in Zuma in parliament.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) opposition party applied to the country’s highest court on Thursday to order parliament to begin impeachment proceedings against the president for lying to the legislative body.
The EFF called it “a last resort”, with party leader Julius Malema accusing parliament, which is dominated by the ANC, of failing in its duty to hold the president accountable.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the parliament building in Cape Town, carrying posters reading: “Zuma must fall” and “Hands off the treasury.” Some placards called Zuma a “tsotsi”, a South
African slang word for “criminal.”
But Zuma’s supporters defended his move, said it is the president’s prerogative to reshuffle cabinet.
“The world should not mistake and take the view of the minority and make it a national issue as if it’s the view of the majority,” Mswanele Manyi, a former government spokesman, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s not the view of the majority, the great majority of people of this country are fully behind President Zuma.”
On Wednesday, Gordhan inspired a standing ovation at the funeral of Ahmed Kathrada, one of South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid activists, as longtime leaders of the ruling ANC called for Zuma to step down. The outcry by funeral-goers, including the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, further exposed the ruling party’s divide.
The cabinet shuffle comes as the calls for Zuma to step down grow.
Zuma, who has faced numerous corruption allegations, in November survived an attempt by senior party members to oust him as president.
Last year the Constitutional Court ordered Zuma to repay 7.8 million rand ($579,004) in inappropriate state spending on his sprawling country home.
Political and business leaders condemned Zuma and predicted that South Africa’s sovereign credit rating would be downgraded to “junk” in the coming months.
ANC ally the South African Communist Party said the firing of Gordhan, who was respected by investors locally and abroad as a champion of fiscal responsibility, risked triggering the looting of treasury.
South Africa’s Banking Association said changing the finance minister – the fourth in the past 18 months – and deputy finance minister raised “alarming concerns” over fiscal discipline.
Gordhan became South Africa’s finance minister after Zuma’s abrupt decision in December 2015 to fire Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and replace him with David van Rooyen, a relatively unknown figure, which unsettled markets and prompted a national outcry.
Late last year, prosecutors dropped fraud charges against Gordhan that were criticised by many South Africans as politically motivated and deepened concern about alleged government mismanagement.
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