While head of South Africa's revenue service six years ago, the country's respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, allegedly let a senior executive retire and be rehired on an expensive contract. Only now is he being taken to task and is scheduled to appear in court on fraud charges next week.
But those charges, believed by many to be spurious and prompted by a falling out with President Jacob Zuma, are causing huge disquiet in the country's business community. And now influential figures in the highly disciplined ruling African National Congress are speaking out. The party's chief whip in parliament, Jackson Mthembu, has described the allegations as "politically motivated" and called on the ANC's entire leadership to resign.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has publicly supported Gordhan and warned the case against him should not be allowed to disrupt the latter's efforts to revive the South African economy. The row has weakened the rand and bonds.
The furore over Gordhan, who introduced a cautious budget this week that raises taxes and trimmed spending, is just the latest to embroil Zuma. They range from his refusal to reimburse major state works on his home to political patronage, notably suspicions about his closeness to the wealthy Gupta business family. They come after the ANC’s worst electoral drubbing in local elections in August – no coincidence.
Zuma, who became president in 2009, has become a serious liability to the party. Gordhan has opposed him over nuclear investment plans and the management of state companies and has submitted an affidavit to the courts implicating the Guptas in “suspicious transactions” valued at €440 million over the past four years.
It appears – for now – that Zuma has pulled back from firing Gordhan. But the combination of protests by the business community on behalf of a minister they trust, market jitters and the first signs of open internal ANC dissent are harbingers of more to come. The time has come for Zuma to consider bowing out.