South Africa’s Zuma denies outside influence in his cabinet appointments
CAPE TOWN – South African President Jacob Zuma denied being influenced by anyone in the appointment of cabinet ministers, responding to allegations by his own deputy finance minister that a wealthy family close to Zuma offered him the job of finance minister.
The government was rocked on Wednesday by suggestions that the Gupta family may have been behind Zuma’s decision to sack the respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December.
Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said the Guptas, whose businesses stretch from media to mining, had offered him Nene’s job but he rejected it. The Guptas denied making job offers to anyone in government.
Zuma denied any involvement in response to questions in parliament in Cape Town on Thursday.
“If Jonas says he was offered by the Guptas, I think you will be well-placed to ask the Guptas, or Jonas. Don’t ask me. Where do I come in?” Zuma said.
“I never offered Jonas the ministry. That’s why he is the deputy minister.”
The country’s main financial newspaper, Business Day, said that Jonas received a text message from a “prominent businessman” telling him to be quiet shortly before he made his accusation in a statement on Wednesday.
“Please keep your own counsel. Martyrdom is best left to Christ,” the text message read. The paper did not identify the sender or say how it had seen the message, beyond citing sources close to Jonas. Jonas was not immediately available to comment.
The opposition in parliament called for Zuma to resign.
The claims concerning the Guptas have erupted during a prolonged confrontation between Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who eventually replaced Nene, and the elite Hawks police unit. That has raised concerns about a possible repeat of the run on the rand and bonds seen in December when Nene was fired.
Zuma has previously said his ties with the family are above board. His son, Duduzane, is a director with Gupta family members of six companies, documents show.
“The rotten forces are on the back foot,” said Barbara Hogan, a former cabinet minister and leading anti-apartheid activist. “To those people who believe they still need to defend Zuma and have benefited from a close relationship with the Guptas, I appeal to them now to stand back.”
The secretary general of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party said no one was untouchable, including Zuma, but the party had not discussed whether to remove the president.
“He’s not untouchable, he’s the president,” Gwede Mantashe told Reuters. “Why should we see this as a crisis instead of a positive? It will embolden people to come to the fore … so we can find the business people who are tampering within the ANC.”
The ANC’s youth wing said it would ask the party to remove Jonas from his post, while the trade minister Rob Davies said he knew him “as man of honesty and integrity.”
Cabinet minister Ngoako Ramathlodi told Reuters the influence of the Gupta family would be a serious issue and would be discussed at a meeting of the party conference this weekend.
In his statement, Jonas said he rejected the Guptas’ offer “out of hand”, saying it made a mockery of South Africa’s 22-year-old democracy.
Nene declined to comment when reached by Reuters.
Moody’s analysts were due to visit South Africa on Wednesday of this week after putting its Baa2 credit rating on review. Its office here declined to confirm if they had arrived.
Investors fear further political uncertainty could hasten a downgrade, with Fitch and Standard & Poor’s already rating the country just one step above subinvestment grade.
South Africa’s central bank trimmed its growth forecast to 0.8 per cent from 0.9 per cent, as it raised its benchmark repo rate by 25 basis points to 7.0 per cent as it tries to tame rising inflation despite slow growth.
The rand, which was weakened by Gordhan confrontation with police, recovered on Thursday after the Federal Reserve left U.S. interest rates unchanged, putting pressure on the dollar.
Analysts said Zuma was under pressure over the accusations against the Guptas.
“Irrespective of the truth, or otherwise, of the stunning allegations … Mr Zuma should resign here and now for the sake of the country and for the sake of his party,” Gary van Staden, an economist at NKC African Economics said. (Reuters)