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Jacob Zuma's sacking of Pravin Gordhan, other ministers augurs poorly for South Africa's future

South African president Jacob Zuma’s sacking of his well-respected Indian-origin finance minister Pravin Gordhan and other Cabinet ministers sets the stage for party elections later this year when Zuma will hope to pass the torch to a chosen successor. But the sacking of Gordhan has once again drawn attention to the South African president’s links to the controversial business house of the Gupta brothers.

Around a third of the Cabinet was dropped or moved around in the dramatic reshuffle. The late night sacking — that Gordhan learned of from the media — has had immediate repercussions. The South African currency, the Rand, fell by five percent, the ruling African National Congress was riven with dissension with public protests and it evoked sharp criticism from Opposition parties. Top leaders of the ANC including Vice-President Cyril Ramaphosa termed the sacking as “unacceptable”. It was the first time top ANC leaders had publicly criticised the president.

File image of Pravin Gordhan. Wikimedia Commons

File image of Pravin Gordhan. Wikimedia Commons

Gordhan was replaced by Interior Minister Malusi Gigaba, a Zuma loyalist with little financial experience. Zuma has spoken of a "radical economic transformation" to revive the South African economy, but South African analysts see Zuma’s reshuffle as an attempt to bring in a minister who will allow the ANC government to undertake populist measures. Others claim that it will allow some controversial deals that Gordhan had blocked to be carried forward. Zuma is to step down as ANC president later this year and his replacement is likely to lead the party that fought the apartheid regime in the next elections that are due in 2019.

The presidential decision was made without consulting any ministry or party colleagues. Gordhan and his deputy minister, Mcebisi Jonas were recalled from a trade meeting in London that was to be followed by a roadshow to attract foreign investment to South Africa. They were said to be conspiring with UK banks against South African interests — a charge that Gordhan angrily denied at his press conference.

Gordhan, who had been finance minister from 2009 to 2014, was internationally respected for his fiscal prudence in the steering of the South African economy. According to some accounts, the new finance minister Gigaba is not expected to be as opposed to the interests of the Guptas as his predecessor. The Guptas are three brothers who belonged to Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh before they set up business ventures in South Africa in the 1990s.

The three brothers, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta are among the richest businessmen in South Africa and run a business empire that is involved in mining, media and computer equipment. The Guptas, who are well known for their close ties to Zuma, have been accused of influence peddling and interfering in government appointments.

In 2013, a major controversy had erupted when a plane carrying high-profile wedding guests arriving for the wedding of Vega Gupta (the daughter of one of the Gupta brothers), landed at the South African Air Force airbase at Waterkloof. The flagrant disregard of norms led to questions being asked about who had given permission for the private charter to land at the air force base and provided it with customs and emigration facilities. The incident created a furore in South African political circles and severely embarrassed the ANC. Termed 'Guptagate' by the South African media, it had given a public display of the kind of clout the Gupta family exercised within the Zuma government.

Zuma has been under pressure over a number of corruption scandals; he has been accused of corruption and questionable connections with business groups like the Guptas. Early last year, the constitutional court had ruled against Zuma for not returning government funds that had been used for his personal residence in rural Nkandla. In late November 2016, he survived an attempt to remove him from the leadership of the ANC after he survived a no-confidence motion in Parliament. A resolution was moved at the ANC’s National Executive Committee meeting to remove him as party president after a preliminary investigative report had said that there was evidence that the Gupta family had exerted influence on the president. However, the motion was defeated without taking a vote.

A couple of weeks earlier, Zuma had faced a no-confidence motion in Parliament (10 November), which was voted out with the entire ANC coming together to defeat the motion. With the reshuffling of his Cabinet, Zuma has consolidated his powers within the government by replacing senior leaders with political lightweights. But it has also lost him considerable support within the African National Conference, which could have an impact on his succession plan just eight months before the party holds its five-yearly national conference.

Updated Date: Apr 03, 2017 12:48 PM

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