By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma fought back on Thursday against suggestions that a prominent business family might have been behind his abrupt sacking of a finance minister, a move which shook confidence in the country's economic management.
Facing calls for his resignation, Zuma tried to deflect questions over his dismissal of Nhlanhla Nene in December, but drew opposition accusations that he had failed to explain his role in a decision which provoked political and financial chaos.
The episode, in which three men occupied one of the most important government portfolios in five days, helped to send the South African currency down nearly 10 percent in December.
After firing Nene, Zuma appointed a junior politician with no record of national financial management to the post, before rapidly backtracking and summoning a past finance minister.
While the rand subsequently pulled out of its free fall, the row exploded again on Wednesday when Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas said the Gupta family, whose businesses stretch from media to mining, had offered him Nene's job before he had been dismissed.
The Guptas, who are close to Zuma, denied making job offers to anyone in government.
Jonas said he had rejected the approach at the time, and a leading newspaper reported he had received an apparently threatening warning to keep quiet before making his allegations.
Zuma told parliament he was not the right man to question on the allegations. "If Jonas says he was offered by the Guptas, I think you will be well-placed to ask the Guptas, or Jonas. Don't ask me. Where do I come in?" he said. "I never offered Jonas the ministry. That's why he is the deputy minister."
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, called on Zuma to resign, saying he had failed to answer his question on why Nene had been fired.
Maimane also criticized the ruling African National Congress (ANC) after the exchange in parliament, which led to his being ordered out of the chamber.
"I pressed the president on this point, I was asked by the Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, to leave the House. This is yet another chapter in the story of how the ANC in parliament protects Jacob Zuma at any cost."
'MARTYRDOM BEST LEFT TO CHRIST"
The country's main financial newspaper, Business Day, said that Jonas had received a text message from a "prominent businessman" telling him to be quiet shortly before he made his accusation in a statement on Wednesday.
"Please keep your own counsel. Martyrdom is best left to Christ," the text message read. The paper did not identify the sender or say how it had seen the message, beyond citing sources close to Jonas. Jonas was not immediately available to comment.
The claims concerning the Guptas have erupted during a confrontation between Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who eventually replaced Nene, and the elite Hawks police unit. That has raised concerns about a possible repeat of the run on the rand and bonds seen in December when Nene was fired.
Zuma, who has previously said his ties with the Gupta family are above board, has been plagued by scandals over the years. His son, Duduzane, is a director along with Gupta family members of six companies, documents show.
"The rotten forces are on the back foot," said Barbara Hogan, a former cabinet minister who was once a leading anti-apartheid activist. "To those people who believe they still need to defend Zuma and have benefited from a close relationship with the Guptas, I appeal to them now to stand back."
The ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said the party had not discussed whether to remove Zuma.
"He's not untouchable, he's the president," Gwede Mantashe told Reuters. "Why should we see this as a crisis instead of a positive? It will embolden people to come to the fore ... so we can find the business people who are tampering within the ANC."
The ANC's youth wing said it would ask the party to remove Jonas from his post, while the trade minister Rob Davies said he knew him "as man of honesty and integrity."
Cabinet minister Ngoako Ramathlodi told Reuters the influence of the Gupta family would be a serious issue and would be discussed at an ANC meeting this weekend.
In his statement, Jonas said he had rejected the Guptas' offer "out of hand", saying it made a mockery of South Africa's 22-year-old democracy.
Nene declined to comment when reached by Reuters.
Analysts from Moody's credit rating agency were due to visit South Africa this week after putting its Baa2 rating on review. Its office declined to confirm if they had arrived.
Investors fear further political uncertainty could hasten a downgrade, with Fitch and Standard & Poor's already rating the country just one step above junk status.
South Africa's central bank trimmed its forecast of economic growth this year to 0.8 percent from 0.9 percent, as it raised its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to 7.0 percent as it tries to tame rising inflation.
The rand, which was weakened by Gordhan's confrontation with police earlier this week, recovered after the Federal Reserve left U.S. interest rates unchanged, putting pressure on the dollar.
"I have South Africa at the top of my blacklist on currencies that I don't like," said Cristian Maggio, the head of Emerging Markets Strategy at TD Securities in London.
Maggio thought Zuma would hold on. "I doubt he will resign, and I don’t think that other senior ANC officers will put in any other way meaningful pressure on him to do so," he said.
(Additional reporting by Joe Brock, Mfuneko Toyana, Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Zandi Shabalala and Stella Mapenzauswa in Johannesburg and Karin Strohecker in London; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by David Stamp)