JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African prosecutors on Monday dropped fraud charges against the finance minister and two former tax officials, reversing a decision that was criticized by many South Africans and deepened concern about the country's struggling economy and alleged government mismanagement.
The turnaround came just two days before Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was due to appear in court, an event that opposition groups and others said they planned to mark with a large demonstration outside the courthouse. While the announcement that Gordhan will not be prosecuted defused some tension, it failed to appease critics who allege President Jacob Zuma is presiding over a government increasingly tainted by corruption and political interference in state agencies.
A sense of unease in South Africa has also been building because of university student protests for free education, some of which turned violent and forced the temporary closure of campuses nationwide. Unrest was reported Monday at the University of Pretoria, but universities have been adjusting schedules and exam timetables in order to enable students to finish the academic year.
Gordhan, who announced increased funding for universities in a recent budget speech, was accused of illegally approving an early retirement package for a former tax official who continued to work on contract. The charges alarmed South Africans who view Gordhan as a responsible steward of a weak economy facing possible credit rating downgrades. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was among high-ranking officials in the ruling party who expressed their support for the finance minister.
In dropping the charges, Shaun Abrahams, director of the National Prosecuting Authority said he had concluded that Gordhan and the two associates accused in the case "did not have the requisite intention to act unlawfully."
Abrahams has said the earlier move against Gordhan was not politically motivated. But the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, alleged it reflected infighting among government factions that are using state institutions to settle political scores, and it said Abrahams should resign.
Zuma is enmeshed in a separate inquiry into whether the Guptas, a business family of Indian immigrants with close ties to the president, sought to influence the selection of some Cabinet picks. Zuma has denied those allegations.