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South Africa’s Zuma reels after U-turn on finance minister

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President Jacob ZumaSouth Africa’s President Jacob Zuma faced a barrage of criticism Monday after sacking two finance ministers within five days in a political drama that raised questions over the future of his leadership.

Zuma last week ousted respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in favour of the little-known David van Rooyen, triggering a backlash that forced him into a U-turn on Sunday when Rooyen himself was removed.

The tumult triggered a collapse in the rand as investors pulled out of the country, which is beset by high unemployment, slow growth and accusations of worsening government corruption.

Zuma has led the African National Congress (ANC) since 2007, but the debacle over the key role of finance minister pointed to a major power shift within the party that has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994.

“This represents a very dark day for Zuma, who has clearly been shown the limits of his authority,” leading commentator Ray Hartley wrote in the Rand Daily Mail.

“For someone who projects himself as a political ‘strongman’, this represents a devastating moment. It shows that he simply does not have the power that he believed he had accrued in the party.”

Pravin Gordhan, who served as finance minister from 2009 to 2014, was re-appointed to the role late on Sunday to try to calm markets after the rand fell to an all-time low of 16 to the dollar when Nene was fired.

Monday, the local currency had recovered some ground, to 15.11 to the dollar.

Gordhan, 66, was due to give a press conference in Pretoria at 1:00 pm (1100 GMT) on Monday.

“Zuma panics” read the headline on the Sowetan newspaper after the shock return of Gordhan.

“It’s very tumultuous time for South Africa and it’s reflective of the crisis of leadership,” Nicky Weimar, senior economist at Nedbank, told AFP.

“While you had Nene in charge, the foreign investors could say that South Africa had a transparent and predictable (economic) policy, but this sparks a tremendous amount of questions about political interference.”

– ‘Very damaging’ –
Zuma issued a statement on Sunday saying that he was removing Van Rooyen after only four days in response to “many representations”.

The ANC issued an official statement welcoming Gordhan’s appointment as “an explicit demonstration of a responsive and accountable government”.

Zuma was accused of sacking Nene partly because the minister had publicly slapped down a move by state-owned South African Airways (SAA) to renegotiate a plane-leasing deal with Airbus.

The president, who has four wives, on Saturday took the unusual step of officially denying rumours that he had a romantic relationship with SAA board chairwoman, Dudu Myeni.

Nomura analyst Peter Montalto said that it was opposition within the ANCto Van Rooyen’s appointment that pushed Zuma into his surprise U-turn.

“The fact that the ANC is a broad church has actually forced Zuma to reverse his decision in a very damaging move for him personally,” Montalto said.

Judith February, senior research associate at the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria, suggested Zuma’s leadership could be under threat from within the ANC.

“This is the lowest point of his presidency,” she said.

“He has lost whatever credibility that he might have left. But we must remember that Zuma is a fighter.”

The ANC, which easily won the 2014 general election, faces local elections next year when it may struggle to retain control of municipalities including Johannesburg, the economic capital.


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