Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle causes South African chaos

Sacking of ministers sparks street protests and split among ANC leadership

An overnight cabinet reshuffle by President Jacob Zuma plunged South Africa into political chaos on Friday, publicly dividing the ruling party’s leadership and prompting civil society to take to the streets in protest.

South Africans woke to find that respected minister for finance Pravin Gordhan and six other ministers and deputies had been fired.

While Mr Zuma told the nation in a televised address that he had made the changes to improve the government’s efficiency and effectiveness, few South Africans believe him.

All of the sacked ministers had in one way or another opposed the president over the past 12 months. Mr Gordhan's old portfolio was handed to former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba, a man who has been a steadfast Zuma loyalist since the president first took office in 2009.


Mr Zuma has yet to give a reason for sacking Mr Gordhan. However, on Thursday the South African Communist Party said the president had informed it he was planning to fire him because he suspected Mr Gordhan of trying to overthrow the government.

Mr Zuma and Mr Gordhan’s relationship has deteriorated rapidly over the past few months because the latter, as head of the treasury, had blocked many of the president’s economic development plans, saying the country could not afford them.


Analysts also suspect that Mr Gordhan’s efforts to tackle widespread government corruption have brought about his demise, as many of his investigations have targeted Zuma loyalists.

Yesterday Mr Gordhan said allegations that he would try to overthrow the government were “sickening”.

He added that an intelligence report implicating him in such activities, that Mr Zuma was using to justify his actions to alliance partners, was “complete nonsense”.

Aside from being widely condemned by large sections of the public, the president’s reshuffle has caused a major rift in the ANC’s top six.

South Africa's deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa said he was "especially unhappy" that Mr Gordhan had been sacked. However, he did not intend to resign in protest.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said that when Mr Zuma had summoned the party's top six officials on Thursday evening to discuss the cabinet reshuffle, there was no agreement about the appointments.

It appears Mr Zuma just steamrolled his appointments through. “For the first time, officials could not agree [with] or endorse the changes. The president had to invoke the prerogative derived from the constitution of the republic [of South Africa],” Mr Mantashe said.

Cracks in ANC

While Mr Zuma’s reshuffle might have purged his government of those he perceives as against him, it has deepened the factionalism in his party.The ANC has called for unity in the wake of the reshuffle, but Mr Zuma’s actions may yet lead to a split in the 105-year-old liberation movement.

Opposition parties are using the political chaos and uncertainty that has been caused as a launch pad to try and have the president impeached or removed from office.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance party has also called for a vote of no confidence in Mr Zuma to take place in parliament, and there is now a chance that enough anti-Zuma ANC MPs would vote against their party leader to carry the motion.

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South Africa