JOHANNESBURG - South Africans woke up Friday to learn that President Jacob Zuma had overhauled his Cabinet, firing, among others, a well-regarded finance minister who had been critical of him. The move prompted widespread outrage and renewed calls from the opposition for the increasingly unpopular president to resign.
Zuma says he reshuffled his Cabinet because he wants to bring in people who can bring “energy, experience and expertise” to the job.
His middle-of-the-night announcement sidelined a public works minister who started his career as an activist, a tourism minister with decades of political experience and a finance minister who has served in the position on two separate occasions.
All three former ministers had challenged the president directly in the last year, as Zuma sunk deeper in national opinion polls over a series of corruption scandals.
Zuma has been asked to resign by the opposition, by some high-ranking members of his own party and by a recently deceased anti-apartheid icon who was close friends with former president Nelson Mandela.
Zuma’s spokesman did not respond to multiple calls from VOA Friday for comment on the reshuffle. In separate statements, both the women’s league and the youth league of the ruling African National Congress said they welcomed the reshuffle.
“The ANC Youth League is excited, happy, overjoyed and jubilant at the announcement by President Jacob Zuma on the cabinet reshuffle,” the league said. “...we have consistently said, and maintain, the belief that no one is above the ANC, and no one is irreplaceable. The constitution grants the president, and the president alone, the powers to appoint the Cabinet.”
Move draws mixed reactions
Independent political analyst Ralph Mathekga says Zuma’s move is sure to strengthen his tenuous political position.
“You could say that this is a master stroke from Jacob, from President Jacob Zuma,” he told VOA. “He has strengthened himself, he has actually sent a message, even to the branches of the ANC, that he is still firmly in charge and that they shouldn’t listen to anyone else but they should look his direction for leadership.”
But the opposition Democratic Alliance party says they will fight the move by bringing a no-confidence vote against Zuma in parliament.
Opposition party spokesman Mabine Seabe says the Cabinet changes don’t serve South Africans, but only help Zuma.
“The only qualification is that these are people who are beholden to the president and will do whatever he says, even if it’s not in the interest of the constitution of the people of South Africa,” said Seabe, who told VOA he was jolted awake in the middle of the night by the news and had not slept. “We are in a troubled space in the moment for as long as he sits in the Union Buildings and continues to administer South Africans’ affairs.”
Previous no-confidence measures against Zuma have failed, due to the ANC's majority in parliament.
And so, activists like Mark Heywood of protest movement Save South Africa say they need to make their outrage heard by lawmakers. Heywood spoke to VOA as he headed to a march Friday in Pretoria, the capital, opposing the Cabinet changes.
“It is not a Cabinet reshuffle,” he said. “It is a coup. That is the best term for it. The president has abused his legal powers to appoint to the Cabinet not people who are going to serve the interests of South Africa but people who are going to serve his interests to gain control over the finances, over the banks of this country.”
The last time Zuma made a significant change to his Cabinet - in late 2015, when he suddenly and inexplicably fired another highly regarded finance minister and then went through two finance ministers in three days -- the South African currency took a hit.
On Friday morning, the rand went into freefall again, showing the most severe percentage drop since that 2015 reshuffle.