By Joe Brock and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party is split at the top over whether Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan should be sacked, sources said on Wednesday.
President Jacob Zuma wants to replace Gordhan and has the support of party Chairwoman Baleka Mbete and Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte, the sources said.
But Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize want Gordhan to remain and have expressed their opinion to Zuma, according to the sources.
The rift at the top comes amid party divisions over the finance ministers plans to rein in spending as the economy stagnates, analysts say.
While Zuma does not need the backing of the top six ANC members to fire ministers, open criticism might undermine his own position within the party.
“The three have told Zuma he’s making a mistake,” a senior party source told Reuters.
As Gordhan’s future hung in the balance, more volatile trading in the rand currency underlined his reputation as an emblem of South Africa’s stability among investors.
Local assets have been under pressure since Monday when Zuma ordered Gordhan to abandon an investor roadshow in Britain and fly home. Zuma has not given a reason for the recall.
The rand extended losses early on Wednesday as speculation grew Zuma would sack Gordhan after the funeral of anti-apartheid hero Ahmed Kathrada and a cabinet meeting due in the afternoon. It later strengthened against the dollar in response to the first media reports that the party’s leadership was split over his fate. The currency then weakened as much as 0.5 percent.
After attending Kathrada’s funeral, Gordhan said that he will “open a new chapter” of his life if speculation that Zuma is set to sack him possibly later in the day proves correct.
“You deal with it in a professional way … and if one is told one’s services are not required any longer, that’s the end of one chapter, and we open a new chapter,” he said.
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Zuma did not attend the funeral, in line with the wishes of Kathrada’s family. Affectionately known as “Uncle Kathy”, the liberation struggle stalwart who spent 26 years in prison under the apartheid government, was a critic of Zuma.
Addressing mourners at the funeral, former president Kgalema Motlanthe said Kathrada had written an open letter to Zuma in April last year asking him to resign.
“Is it asking too much to express the hope that you will choose the correct way, that is gaining momentum, to consider stepping down?” Motlanthe said, reading from Kathrada’s letter, which drew prolonged applause and a standing ovation.
Zuma, 74, has shown no signs of stepping down before his second and final term as president ends in 2019. Backed by the top echelons of the ANC, he has survived several scandals since taking office in 2009.
Njabulo Nzuza, Secretary General of the ANC Youth League, supported cabinet changes, saying a reshuffle was “normal”.
A cabinet source told Reuters that Wednesday’s meeting might not consider the matter, adding: “Cabinet appointments are solely president’s prerogative, therefore it won’t be something he’ll discuss there.”
The High Court in the capital Pretoria is hearing a case concerning the closure of bank accounts belonging to friends of the president, the Gupta brothers. The case has long been a bone of contention between Zuma and his finance minister.
(Additional reporting by Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg, Mfuneko Toyana in Pretoria and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Richard Lough)