Zuma suffers credibility crisis over finance ministers flip-flop

By James Macharia
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By James Macharia JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A blunder by Jacob Zuma that gave South Africa three finance ministers in five days has put the president's credibility on the line, with some senior ruling party figures, the opposition and ordinary people calling for his head. Zuma's flip-flop was seen as a sign that he has lost control after he named the respected Pravin Gordhan as finance minister late on Sunday, in a stunning U-turn after the sacking last Wednesday of Nhlanhla Nene, who was replaced by David van Rooyen, a relatively unknown lawmaker. Social media was abuzz with calls for Zuma to quit, with the #ZumaMustStillFall hashtag trending on Twitter, replacing #ZumaMustFall, and casting doubt on the political future of 73 year-old president at the helm of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Opinion is however divided over whether Zuma could be forced to relinquish the reins in Africa's most industrialised country. Some analysts expressed doubt that he would be ejected. Zuma's fiasco has come at a time when the ANC is at a crucial stage with local elections looming next year, in which the party will face stiff competition from the opposition Democratic Alliance and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters in urban areas, including the economic hub of Johannesburg. Some key supporters of the ANC, Nelson Mandela's erstwhile liberation movement that has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994, have called on Zuma to consider leaving office. "Zuma must think about his position very seriously," said a former senior ANC legislator and respected anti-apartheid activist Ben Turok. "It may not be his death knell, but it's certainly the turning of the tide." ZUMA CRISIS Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, was ousted by the ANC in 2008 in what was then the most dramatic political crisis since the end of white minority rule. The party recalled Mbeki before his term ended, and he agreed to step down. The precedent could be dangerous for Zuma if he fails to fulfil the hopes of his allies on the left. "Zuma must recalled. Damaging the image of the country on regular basis. Mampara (fool) of the year! He should fall now!," said Michael Kwanele in a tweet. But some analysts doubt that it will come to that. Zuma, whose colourful private life has often overshadowed his status as the leader of Africa's most advanced economy, has survived several political and personal scandals, including accusations by the opposition that he spent $23 million in state-funded security upgrades to his rural home. Zuma denies any wrongdoing. "I don't think that there is a huge likelihood that he will be recalled. If he had stayed on the course he set and stuck with van Rooyen, he would have been in more immediate danger," Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, said. "It looks like there are factions in ANC, and one faction pushed back on this appointment. Clearly there will be more of this competition that will steer policy as we go along." The ANC, which has a majority in parliament but has admitted to losing membership countrywide before local elections next year, backed Zuma, saying it had no internal divisions. "The ANC remains one of the strongest brands. We don't subscribe to a notion of a leader, we emphasise the notion of a collective leadership," party spokesman Zizi Kodwa, rejecting any notion that the party was considering recalling Zuma. The party won the 2014 national elections with a 62 percent majority, and dominates parliament, helping Zuma survive a motion of no in parliament confidence in March when the opposition wanted to remove him for mismanaging the economy. Even if Zuma were to fall now, there is still little prospect of the ANC losing power. The appointment of Zuma loyalist van Rooyen triggered a wave of criticism and a market sell-off that sent the rand plunging to a new all-time low on Friday as stocks also tumbled. The currency rose 5 percent and shares gained as much as 2 percent on Monday, cheering Gordhan's appointment. OUT OF CONTROL "I would be lying if I said I wasn't shocked. It's an indication of policy making that is really out of control," said BNP Paribas Securities South Africa political consultant Nic Borain. "This is a leader who has gone beyond the extent of his powers and I think is in very dangerous territory." The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party said the president was playing Russian roulette with the economy. "South Africa cannot continue to be led by a flip-flopping President who has complete disregard for the well-being of the country and its citizens," said leader of the DA, Mmusi Maimane. Analysts said it was still unclear what triggered a change of heart by the president to drop Van Rooyen on Sunday night. State television SABC showed Zuma addressing party members on Sunday in the Mpumalanga province, where he made no mention of the looming changes. Some analysts believe pressure on Zuma may have come from within his party after the meeting. Zuma may be safe for now, but his image has been dented and his trademark charisma and charm may not be enough to keep the ANC hatchet men at bay if he continues to disappoint them. "I think from an investor's point of view, this u-turn is hugely positive. The push-back by the market, part of the ANC and citizens forced this backtracking by Zuma," said Friedman. (Reporting by James Macharia; editing by Giles Elgood)