In a dramatic late-night move to gain control of South Africa's treasury, President Jacob Zuma has sacked his two highest finance officials and replaced them with personal loyalists, triggering a plunge in the national currency.
Mr. Zuma dismissed or reassigned 20 ministers and deputy ministers on Thursday night as part of a sweeping purge to get rid of his opponents in a fierce factional war.
In a bizarre touch, his office made the announcement after midnight (local time), at an hour when most South Africans are asleep.
Mr. Zuma gave only a terse explanation, saying that he made the moves to "bring about radical socio-economic transformation" for the benefit of "the poor and the working class." But analysts noted that he was dismissing the ministers who have sought to protect the government from corruption and cronyism.
The sacking of his enemies will consolidate his power as he manoeuvres to anoint his ex-wife, former African Union chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as his successor at the helm of the ruling party, the African National Congress. But it could also trigger a rebellion within his party, leaving the country in political turmoil.
Among those sacked in the late-night shuffle were the highly respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas.
Their removal immediately triggered a 4 per cent drop in South Africa's currency, the rand, while economists predicted that the country's credit rating could soon tumble into junk status. Government bonds have also weakened, adding a reported $200-million (U.S.) to government borrowing costs.
Mr. Gordhan has been widely praised for protecting the national treasury from Mr. Zuma's bid for free-spending projects such as a huge nuclear-energy project that could cost tens of billions of dollars. He has often clashed with Mr. Zuma's business cronies, the Gupta brothers, whose vast financial empire includes a web of state contracts and a business partnership with Mr. Zuma's son.
Mr. Gordhan's deputy, Mr. Jonas, has enraged the Zuma faction by giving sworn testimony that the Guptas offered him a bribe of 600-million rand (about $59-million) and a cabinet promotion if he promised to co-operate with them.
In the cabinet shuffle, Mr. Gordhan is being replaced by a Zuma loyalist, former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba, who has a personal friendship with the Guptas. He once attended a lavish Gupta family wedding where the Indian guests were flown into a South African military base, bypassing normal immigration procedures, and he has acknowledged that he has made social visits to the sprawling Gupta mansion in an upscale Johannesburg suburb.
The news of the cabinet shuffle was first reported on a television channel owned by the Gupta family, quoting unnamed "sources." The channel has been campaigning against Mr. Gordhan for months.
The question now is whether the Gordhan sacking will split the ruling party. Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa is among those who are reported to be considering a mutiny against Mr. Zuma.
Opposition parties are planning another parliamentary effort to impeach Mr. Zuma. If several dozen MPs defect from the ANC, it could be enough to force his departure.
At the funeral of revered ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada on Wednesday, many ANC veterans applauded loudly when former president Kgalema Motlanthe read a letter by Mr. Kathrada in which he called for Mr. Zuma's resignation. It was an open gesture of rebellion by many of the most senior members of the ruling party – including several cabinet ministers who were sacked on Thursday night.