JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa's ruling party gave a boost to the embattled president on Wednesday, saying an opposition effort to force his resignation after he fired the finance minister would fail.
Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the African National Congress, also said the party is "gravely concerned" about rare shows of division among top party leaders, some of whom — including himself — publicly criticized President Jacob Zuma's Cabinet reshuffle last week. The dismissal of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan deepened concerns about government corruption and led the Standard & Poor's agency to lower South Africa's credit rating, citing political instability and threats to economic growth.
Hours after Mantashe spoke, the parliament scheduled debate on an opposition motion of no confidence in Zuma for April 18. Similar bids have failed to muster the needed votes to oust Zuma in the past.
Mantashe's comments came a day after a meeting of a key party panel, the National Working Committee. Late Tuesday, the ruling party released an email of what appeared to be committee meeting notes that indicated significant support for Zuma, despite scandals that contributed to big ANC losses in local elections last year. The party later said the notes were sent in error and did not reflect the party's position.
The committee's official statement on Wednesday acknowledged calls from some ruling party allies, including the South African Communist Party and the country's biggest labor group, for Zuma to resign. It said it would keep engaging with those allies "on this matter," disappointing critics who had hoped for more forceful language against a president who has been enmeshed in scandals for years.
Zuma was forced to reimburse some state money after the Constitutional Court ruled against him in a dispute over millions of dollars spent on his private home. His ties to the Guptas, an Indian immigrant family previously accused of trying to steer the selection of Cabinet picks in order to promote its businesses, have come under scrutiny. Zuma has denied any inappropriate influence on his selections, and the Guptas deny wrongdoing.
The firing of Gordhan, who was widely considered an effective, honest steward of the economy, further alarmed many South Africans. Some opposition groups plan protest marches in the days ahead.
South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, called for the parliamentary vote of no confidence in the president. Mantashe, however, said such a vote would fail because it amounted to asking the ANC, in power since the end of white minority rule in 1994, to "close ranks" rather than defect at the whim of another political party.
"No army allows its soldiers to be commanded by the enemy general," said Mantashe, indicating that Zuma's fate rests within the ranks of the party he leads.
In 2008, ruling party leaders withdrew their backing for Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, and he quit. Zuma, Mbeki's rival, became president after 2009 elections.
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