The sacking of South Africa’s respected Indian-origin finance minister Pravin Gordhan in a cabinet purge pitched the ruling ANC party into chaos on Friday, creating one of its biggest tests since leading the fight against apartheid.
The country’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa launched a unprecedented verbal attack on President Jacob Zuma, whose midnight reshuffle sent the rand currency plunging and triggered accusations that he was promoting graft.
Zuma’s axing of Gordhan also unleashed a wave of opposition in the African National Congress, which came to power under Nelson Mandela in the euphoric 1994 elections but has suffered declining support.
Gordhan was widely seen as a competent manager of one of the world’s most important emerging economies.
Ramaphosa went public with his anger, openly attacking his boss. “I told him that I would not agree with him,” he told reporters.
“There are quite a number of other colleagues and comrades who are unhappy about this situation, particularly the removal of the minister of finance who was serving the country with absolute distinction.”
Gordhan was reportedly sacked because of an alleged intelligence report on meetings he held in London earlier this week.
“For him to be removed for this type of reasoning is to me unacceptable,” Ramaphosa said.
Gordhan held a press conference on Friday, saying he heard of his sacking via television and dismissing the intelligence report “as absolute nonsense”.
“We hope more and more South Africans would make it clear that our country is not for sale,” he added.
Zuma made 20 new government appointments in the reshuffle.
“I’m very uncomfortable because areas where ministers do not perform have not been touched,” Gwede Mantashe, the influential ANC secretary general, said.
“We can’t be happy (with the decision to sack Gordhan) because we think that the finance minister was a hard worker.”
Gordhan had been at loggerheads with Zuma for months, receiving support from several ministers and major foreign investors, as well as many ordinary South Africans and veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle.
He campaigned for budget discipline and against corruption, but Zuma’s allies have accused Gordhan of thwarting the president’s desire to enact radical policies to tackle racial inequality.
Mantashe told 702 radio that Zuma was aware that many in the ANC were “unhappy” about the purge, in which Gordhan was replaced by home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba.
“The president came with a list. (He) said ‘you can comment if you want to comment, but this is my decision,’” Mantashe said.
The ANC, which was banned under white-minority rule, has lost popularity due to corruption allegations, record unemployment and slow economic growth.