A plan by South African President Jacob Zuma to sack his respected finance minister threatened Thursday to split the African National Congress (ANC) party that led the country out of apartheid.
Zuma has been at loggerheads with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan for months, and this week abruptly ordered him to return home from a foreign investment trip as speculation rose of a dramatic political showdown.
Gordhan is supported by several senior ministers and many international investors, as well as being widely admired by ordinary South Africans and veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle.
He has campaigned for controlled spending and against corruption, but Zuma’s allies have accused him of thwarting the president’s desire to enact "radical economic transformation" tackling racial inequality.
"The president informed us of his intention to effect a cabinet reshuffle replacing both the minister and deputy minister of finance," Solly Mapaila, of the South African Communist Party (SACP), told reporters in Johannesburg.
The statement was the first official confirmation that Zuma intended to dump Gordhan, a move which could prompt several retaliatory ministerial resignations.
Zuma, 74, met with the SACP, a junior coalition partner of the ANC, on Monday.
-ANC losing support
Gordhan’s fate has become a battleground over the future of the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela that was banned under apartheid and fought for decades to end white-minority rule.
It has held power since Mandela won the euphoric first post-apartheid election in 1994, but has lost popularity due to corruption allegations, record unemployment and slow economic growth.
Zuma is due to step down as head of the party in December, ahead of the 2019 general election.
He is seen as favouring his ex-wife, former African Union chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to succeed him, ahead of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
"The battle for control of the ANC will... culminate in the defeat of Cyril Ramaphosa, Gordhan and their faction at the December conference," the Eurasia consultancy predicted in a briefing note.
"This group is then very likely to split off from the ANC in a possible major realignment of South African politics."
Peter Attard Montalto, analyst at Nomura bank, said that sacking Gordhan would be "a very large, though calculated, risk".
"Zuma is considering taking this risk to try to ensure success at December’s elective conference for his faction," he added, predicting a collapse in the rand and an immediate credit ratings downgrade.
Zuma’s spokesman was not immediately available to comment on reports of Gordhan’s planned sacking.
The final decision may have been put on hold due to the death of celebrated anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, 87.
Kathrada was a fierce critic of Zuma, and his funeral on Wednesday became an impromptu rally against the president, who did not attend at the request of the family.
Gordhan, 67, was given a standing ovation at the event.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance party said Thursday it would push for a vote of no-confidence in parliament, though Zuma has survived several such motions in the past.
Separately, the radical opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party filed a request for the Constitutional Court to institute impeachment proceedings against the president.
The court last year found Zuma guilty of violating the constitution after he refused to repay taxpayers’ money used to refurbish his private rural house.
He is also fighting a court order that could reinstate almost 800 corruption charges against him over a multi-billion dollar arms deal in the 1990s.
"If Zuma truly valued the ANC above all else, he would not inflict on it or the country the devastation wrought by choices taken simply to protect his friends and family," Natasha Marrian, political commentator of the Business Day, wrote Thursday.
"If the ANC has not woken to this by now, it is more lost than even the driest cynic could imagine."