Cabinet Reshuffle: The Boot For Pravin Gordhan, Checkmate For Jacob Zuma

On Thursday, South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, gave nearly 20 ministers and deputy ministers their marching orders in a merciless late-night cabinet reshuffle. Among the casualties were the Minster of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas.

Reports had emerged earlier in the day that nine ministers and six deputy ministers were summoned to meet with the top six members of the ruling African National Congress's (ANC) executive branch.

Among those executive members were Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, House Speaker Baleka Mbete, the Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and his deputy, Jessie Duarte. Earlier this week the president had ordered Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to cut short his engagements at an international investor roadshow and return home, sparking widespread speculation that Gordhan was going to be sacked.

On Monday, allegations surfaced of a damning intelligence report that had fallen into the hands of the ANC's top six executives, setting the cabinet reshuffle into motion. The document, called "Operation Checkmate," is believed to contain evidence of collusion between Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas and a group of international banks to initiate a conspiratorial campaign to oust Jacob Zuma.

President Jacob Zuma of South Africa
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma at the EU-South Africa summit in Brussels. [Image by Yves Logghe/AP Images]

While the existence of this document has yet to be verified, it is interesting to note that the order for Gordhan and Jonas to return to South Africa was issued shortly after the allegations emerged. Some believe that Zuma used the intelligence report to motivate his cabinet reshuffle.

The move to give Gordhan the boot will draw the ire of global investors, as well as the public, when the full brunt of the cabinet reshuffle hits the markets. At the time of this writing, the South African Rand had already fallen by nearly 4 percent.

Investors and markets alike welcomed Pravin Gordhan's appointment to a second term as Minister of Finance after he was asked to replace Nhlanhla Nene in December, 2015. Gordhan was momentarily superseded by an obscure former mayor, David van Rooyen, in a move that ultimately crushed the South African Rand and caused the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) to lose more than R100 billion in desperately needed public pension funds.

Pravin Gordhan is a highly-respected political figure, often lauded for his fearlessness, integrity, and fiscal prowess, and under his recent tenure, he managed to deflect rating downgrades, curb exorbitant amounts of wasteful expenditure, and implement various appropriate austerity measures to keep South Africa's floundering economy afloat.

President Zuma is currently dealing with large factions within the ANC, and Thursday's cabinet reshuffle will likely increase tensions between his supporters, and those who are eagerly awaiting his removal from office. There have been reports that at least three members of the executive were heavily opposed to the president's shake-up. Bloomberg News reported that roughly 12 ministers, as well as Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, were considering tendering their resignations in the wake of the cabinet reshuffle, and more particularly, the removal of Gordhan.

In an unexpected move, Jacob Zuma had mentioned earlier this week that he would be open to stepping down as president on the condition that Gordhan and Jonas are removed from their positions at the helm of the treasury. It is unclear what exactly transpired in Thursday's meeting between ANC executives, but with consistently mounting calls – both internal and external – for Zuma to resign, as well as strong support for Gordhan, it seems unlikely that his offer will satisfy opponents.

Gordhan maintained that South Africa is in no position to contend with economic instability, especially when volatility comes as a result of careless political manoeuvres. After nearly 23 years of freedom from apartheid, the country still suffers crippling unemployment rates and gross inequality. A significant portion of the country's wealth still sits in the hands of whites, who make up a mere 9 percent of the total population.

Pravin Gordhan greets former President Nelson Mandela's wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, during the funeral service for Ahmed Kathrada. [Image by Themba Hadebe/AP Images]

Earlier this week, President Jacob Zuma was barred from attending the funeral of anti-apartheid struggle hero, Ahmed Kathrada, who remained a staunch critic of Zuma's administration until his final hours. Former president Kgalema Motlanthe took to the stage to read an excerpt from a letter that Kathrada had addressed to the president. In it, Kathrada had called for Zuma to resign, and as Motlanthe read the words aloud, the congregation of ANC heavyweights clapped and cheered. Gordhan received a standing ovation after delivering a teary-eyed eulogy to the fallen stalwart.

Perhaps the writing is on the wall. Whether booting Pravin Gordhan from the treasury will result in a checkmate for Jacob Zuma, only time will tell.

[Featured Image by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images]