RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, has been mired in scandal since well before he assumed the presidency in 2009. Along the way, he survived rape and corruption charges, and his party, the African National Congress, has stood behind him - until now, when his latest battle with one of his own ministers appear to be fracturing the ruling party, as Peter Granitz reports from the capital, Pretoria.
PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: October has been tough for President Jacob Zuma. With a last-minute court order, he blocked publication of a long-awaited report in the corruption in his administration. University students demanding free education have torched buildings in nationwide protests all month. And leading figures in the ruling African National Congress are peeling away from Zuma in support of his highly respected finance minister who's facing what many say are politically motivated fraud charges.
But you wouldn't know it if you saw Zuma joking with South African diplomats earlier this month in Pretoria.
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PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: When people say - what's happening in South Africa? Why this protest? What is happening? - tell them that's democracy.
ZUMA: That's democracy. Democracy is maturing. Why does it look like the ruling party's fighting?
GRANITZ: It does, indeed, look like the ruling party is fighting. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa became the latest cabinet minister to throw support behind Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Gordhan is accused of fraudulently approving early retirement for a deputy commissioner when he was head of South Africa's tax bureau and then rehiring him as a consultant at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to the agency.
Cathy Powell is a constitutional law expert at the University of Cape Town. She says the charge is bogus.
CATHY POWELL: If you look at the law and if you look at the process whereby this has happened, they're clearly trying to find something to pin on Gordhan. So you can call that a witch hunt You can call that a political campaign. I just call it abuse of the law.
GRANITZ: Gordhan is a leader in the African National Congress and an anti-apartheid veteran who has a reputation for honesty. Nedbank economist Busisiwe Radebe says the markets view him as a check on Zuma.
BUSISIWE RADEBE: He presents this person who's going to fight corruption.
GRANITZ: Zuma says he has faith in his finance minister. But political analyst Ralph Mathekga says it looks as if Zuma ordered state prosecutors to bring the charges.
RALPH MATHEKGA: You can't go after finance minister unless the president knows and he's in on it.
GRANITZ: Gordhan wants to trim the fat at state-owned companies, such as South African Airways and power supplier Eskom. Zuma recently expanded his roles in those companies which are led by his friends. Mathekga says Zuma remains skeptical of the finance minister because of Gordhan's close relationship with business leaders, many of whom have criticized the president's management of the economy.
MATHEKGA: The ANC and the private sector, I don't think they have a good relationship. They view each other with suspicion.
GRANITZ: Gordhan took over the finance ministry in December at a time of crisis for Zuma and South Africa. Markets and the currency tanked after Zuma fired a respected finance minister, replaced him with an unknown and then sacked him just days later. He then turned to Gordhan, whose appointment stemmed the losses, but it increased pressure on Zuma's administration to address patronage and corruption. For his part, Gordhan has dismissed the charges against him as frivolous.
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MINISTER OF FINANCE PRAVIN GORDHAN: And as far as the persecution and what I call political mischief that I have been subjected to, it remains political noise.
GRANITZ: Maybe so, but the noise is consequential. The South African rand dropped nearly 4 percent when Gordhan was charged. And economists say credit ratings agencies, sympathetic to the finance minister, could downgrade the country to junk status when they re-evaluate the local economy in December.
For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria.
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