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South African President Jacob Zuma faces party revolt after cabinet purge

President Jacob Zuma is seen in Parliament in this February, 2017, file photo.

Sumaya Hisham/REUTERS

South African President Jacob Zuma is facing a growing mutiny in his ruling party after he orchestrated a midnight purge of his cabinet rivals.

Mr. Zuma's dramatic late-night sacking of his finance minister and other cabinet ministers was openly criticized on Friday by senior members of the ruling African National Congress, including his deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who called it "totally unacceptable."

The ANC's secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, said the new cabinet list was drafted outside the party and unilaterally imposed by Mr. Zuma without consulting the party. The ANC's chief parliamentary whip, Jackson Mthembu, said Mr. Zuma had fired the "incorruptible" cabinet members because they refused to "sell their soul."

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But while the revolt spreads, it remains unclear whether there will be enough ANC defectors to allow the opposition parties to win a planned parliamentary vote to impeach Mr. Zuma.

Just after midnight local time on Friday, Mr. Zuma announced that he was sacking or reassigning 20 cabinet ministers and deputy ministers, including the widely respected minister and deputy minister of finance. He replaced them with personal loyalists, triggering fears that he is handing control of the national treasury to his close business friends, the Gupta family.

The move, and earlier signs that it was looming, has triggered a collapse in the national currency, which lost nearly 9 per cent of its value this week. Government bonds have weakened, and analysts are warning that South Africa's credit rating could fall into junk status.

The cabinet purge has sharpened the internal conflict between an anti-Zuma faction, which is believed to support Mr. Ramaphosa as his successor, and the Zuma faction, which is trying to elevate his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as his successor when his term expires as ANC leader in December.

Much of the anger on Friday was focused on the fact that Mr. Zuma had cited a dubious and poorly written "intelligence report" as his justification for firing his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas.

At a news conference surrounded by treasury staff on Friday morning, Mr. Gordhan waved a copy of the "intelligence report" and said he was "sickened" by its allegation that he was engaged in a "massive conspiracy to undermine the economy."

Mr. Ramaphosa, speaking to reporters, said he was disturbed by the "spurious allegations" in the "intelligence report." He said Mr. Zuma had announced the cabinet purge without consulting the ANC leadership. He said he had told Mr. Zuma that he objected to the purge and would be speaking out against it publicly. Many other ANC members also opposed it, he said.

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Mr. Zuma gave only a terse explanation for his cabinet shuffle, 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 the Gupta family has been feuding with the finance minister and deputy minister for months. Mr. Gordhan has fought against big-spending state projects that could benefit the Gupta business empire, while Mr. Jonas has explicitly accused the Guptas of offering him a cabinet promotion and a bribe of 600 million rand ($59-million Canadian) if he co-operated with them.

A senior ANC leader, Mr. Mantashe, told a Johannesburg radio station that the new list of cabinet ministers was "developed somewhere else" and handed to the ANC. Most of the sacked ministers were "good performing ministers," he said. "I'm very much uncomfortable with it."

Another ANC veteran, former cabinet minister Barbara Hogan, said Mr. Zuma has become a "rogue" president and the ANC is beginning to distance itself from him.

Even a former president, Thabo Mbeki, broke his long silence over political matters. Through his foundation, he warned of the risk of "very serious social instability" if Mr. Zuma fails to explain the cabinet purge. The sweeping cabinet changes were "not normal" and will further deepen the "serious public concern and unease" in the country, he said in the foundation's statement.

The new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, is widely reported to have connections to the Gupta family. Julius Malema, leader of one of the two major opposition parties, has repeatedly alleged that Mr. Gigaba has an expensive lifestyle "beyond his means" and has received an "extra income."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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