Pravin Gordhan, who was sacked late Thursday, is liked and admired by many ordinary South Africans — an unusual achievement for any finance minister.
He held onto the purse strings for longer than many analysts expected after he was parachuted into the job in 2015 to calm markets when a little-known lawmaker lasted just four days in the post.
But Zuma’s desire to appoint a loyalist to the treasury ultimately cost Gordhan his portfolio, which he had also held from 2009 to 2014.
Softly-spoken and measured in public, but tough behind the scenes, 67-year-old Gordhan earned an international reputation for fiscal prudence and for taking a firm stand against corruption.
Gordhan’s name alone stabilised the markets which had been gripped by panic after Des Van Rooyen’s surprise appointment in 2015.
The local rand currency gradually recovered as Gordhan stressed his intention to rein in spending, tackle graft and reduce the budget deficit.
But his sacking may now persuade investors and voters that South Africa is heading towards fiscal and political instability.
Over the last year-and-a-half, Gordhan fought a public tussle with President Jacob Zuma for control over the public coffers.
Gordhan last year faced fraud charges that were criticised as a move to oust him by Zuma’s associates.
The charges were dropped at the last minute, exposing deep tensions in the ruling ANC party as several ministers came out in Gordhan’s support.
– Struggle credentials –
Born in the port city of Durban in 1949, Gordhan’s political life began as a pharmacy student at the University of Durban-Westville, an Indians-only institution established during white-minority rule.
There, he joined the anti-apartheid Natal Indian Congress, also becoming involved with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party.
Throughout the 1980s, Gordhan was repeatedly arrested for his political activities.
He then played a pivotal role in the talks that steered South Africa towards its first democratic elections in 1994, before becoming an ANC member of parliament.
He was “probably the cleverest person in government”, political journalist Stephen Grootes wrote in his book “SA Politics Unspun”.
Gordhan was also widely praised for overhauling the tax system, tripling the country’s tax haul from 185 billion rand in 1999 to 558 billion rand in 2009.
Ahead of the reshuffle, Zuma made a sudden move to recall Gordhan while the minister was drumming up investment on an official trip to Britain this week.
“Whatever has happened doesn’t mean we won’t be professional,” Gordhan said in his farewell press event where many supporters gave him a standing ovation.
“We must emphasise, our souls are not for sale,” he added in a pointed dig at the culture of political corruption he said is damaging the country.
“We hope more and more South Africans would make it clear that our country is not for sale.”