By Tiisetso Motsoeneng and Nqobile Dludla
JOHANNESBURG, Dec 14 – South Africa’s rand leapt on Monday after President Jacob Zuma named Pravin Gordhan as finance minister, seeking to draw a line under days of market turmoil that have triggered calls for him to stand down as leader.
Zuma appointed the widely respected Gordhan late on Sunday, his second stint in the job, in a dramatic U-turn that gave Africa’s most industrialized economy its third finance minister in less than a week.
Fallout from the sacking last Wednesday of Nhlanhla Nene has cast fresh doubt on the political future and eminence of 73 year-old Zuma within the ruling African National Congress party.
The president’s initial appointment to the finance ministry of David van Rooyen, a relatively unknown lawmaker and Zuma loyalist, triggered a wave of criticism and a market sell-off that saw the rand plunge to a new all-time low on Friday.
Gordhan, who last held the post from 2009 to 2014, told the press at his first conference that he recognized the concerns of ratings agencies and would endeavor to preserve Pretoria’s investment grade sovereign rating.
“We will stay the course of sound fiscal management. Our expenditure ceiling is sacrosanct,” said Gordhan.
South Africa is gearing up for local elections next year in which the ANC is expected to face stiff competition from the opposition Democratic Alliance in urban areas, including the economic hub of Johannesburg. The countryside remains an ANC stronghold.
Even some supporters of the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s erstwhile liberation movement that has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994, expressed dismay about Wednesday’s appointment of a Zuma loyalist to the crucial post. They also described his latest appointment as a sign Zuma was losing control.
“It may not be his death knell, but it’s certainly the turning of the tide,” said a former senior ANC legislator and anti-apartheid activist Ben Turok.
The currency fell nearly 9 percent last week following the removal of Nene, a civil service veteran who was keen to rein in government spending.
“The markets will welcome back Gordhan to National Treasury,” Rand Merchant Bank’s currency strategist John Cairns said. “He is a known entity, is his own man and did well when in the post previously. But it is certainly unreasonable to expect all of last week’s losses to be reversed — a huge amount of uncertainty has been created in the past few days.”
By 0854 GMT, the rand had strengthened by 5.07 percent against the dollar to 15.0850, recouping some losses suffered last week. The rand had traded at 14.4320 per dollar before Nene was fired.
Yields on government bonds recovered sharply in early trade, with the benchmark paper due in 2026 down 107 basis points at 9.31 percent.
MARKETS CHEER GORDHAN
The rally may also be limited if the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, raises interest rates on Wednesday—a move set to put emerging markets like South Africa under strain.
Credit agency Fitch downgraded South Africa on Dec. 4, leaving the continent’s most sophisticated economy just one notch above “junk” status, and said on Thursday Nene’s firing “raised more negative than positive questions”.
A Reuters poll on Wednesday showed analysts expect the economy to grow just 1.4 percent this year and 1.6 percent next, 0.1 percentage point lower than last month’s forecasts.
“Markets should rally back very strongly but I would not expect a total retracement with a permanent loss of trust in leadership even if we are in a better place,” said Peter Attard Montalto of Nomura in London.
The removal of Nene also led to a selling frenzy in South African banking stocks, which dropped nearly 20 percent.
The banking index shot up 12 percent on Monday, having dropped nearly 20 percent after Nene was removed.
The stock exchange’s broad All-Share index was up as much as 2 percent in early trade but pared its gains to trade 0.39 percent higher to 48,245 points by 0853 GMT.
Zuma said his about-face was prompted by many calls to rethink his decision.
South Africa’s Beeld newspaper, citing an informed person, said Gordhan’s appointment was preceded by a crisis meeting between Zuma, politicians and representatives of the private sector on Sunday afternoon.
Social media has been abuzz with calls for anti-Zuma marches, under the hashtag #ZumaMustFall.
Kokkie Kooyman, a fund manager at Sanlam Investment Management Global, said the president made it seem as though fiscal prudence was not a concern for him.
“Members of the cabinet may have managed to convince him to change his mind,” Kooyman said. “However a leopard doesn’t change its spots. We still have the same president. We will still have high unemployment and high debt. Rating agencies will not re-rate us upwards.”