President of South Africa Jacob Zuma looks on at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) at in New York City in 2011.
Credit: Daniel Berehulak

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The late-night statement from South Africa’s president was short and sharp. But it contained big news: Jacob Zuma had fired his respected finance minister and replaced him with a little-known backbencher.

A day later South Africa was still reeling from what critics have called “an act of willful sabotage” and a “grotesquely irresponsible” move by Zuma, in what has been a scandal-ridden presidency.

The rand currency plummeted to record lows after the announcement, which came days after credit rating agencies moved South Africa closer to “junk” status.

Undeterred, David Van Rooyen, whose previous experience includes small town mayor, was sworn in Thursday as finance minister. He replaces Nhlanhla Nene, removed for “redeployment to another strategic position,” Zuma’s statement said in cagey political language.

For many it is the symbolism of Zuma’s move that is most shocking.

The finance ministry is respected in both South Africa and abroad, and since 1994 has been run by very competent, careful ministers, including Nene.

Zuma gave no details why had dismissed Nene, though confusingly, he noted that Nene “has done well since his appointment as minister of finance during a difficult economic climate.”

But Nene’s removal from the post is widely seen as an attempt by Zuma to take control, and has sent alarm bells clanging. It has also led to a #ZumaMustFall campaign on Twitter, echoing a similar, successful effort over tuition fees last month.

#ZumaMustFall

More from GlobalPost: After massive protests, South Africa freezes tuition hikes

In recent weeks Nene had intervened to stop debt-ridden South African Airways's questionable renegotiations of a plane-leasing deal by board chairwoman Dudu Myeni, a close friend of the president.

He had also pushed back against the affordability of a nuclear power deal negotiated by Zuma with Russia.

"The removal of a technocratically sound, decent, hard-working, well respected, fiscally conservative and reform-minded finance minister is a serious blow," Peter Montalto, an analyst at Nomura, told AFP.

Economists are warning of deep damage to an already troubled economy. Official unemployment stands at more than 25 percent — though closer to 40 percent when discouraged jobseekers are included. South Africa’s GDP is expected to grow by just 1.4 percent this year. As the dominant economy in southern Africa, South Africa’s troubles could well have a ripple effect on the region.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, called Nene’s firing “a reckless and dangerous move that further damages our country’s economy and “another example of how President Zuma puts himself first and the country second.”

“How is this not the act of a corrupt state, one which is being hollowed out, its assets stolen, its people left weaker and poorer?” asked Stephen Grootes, a South African journalist, in the Daily Maverick.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the country where finance ministers are fired because they don’t let the president’s friends do what they want with state assets."

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