JOHANNESBURG — The African National Congress in South Africa closed ranks on Wednesday behind President Jacob Zuma, who has faced growing criticism and calls for his resignation after firing a widely respected finance minister last week.
The A.N.C., Mr. Zuma’s party, also chastised three of its senior leaders who had, in a break from party tradition, openly criticized the president’s actions last week.
“That public dissonance was a mistake that will not happen again,” the party’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, said at a news conference following a meeting of the party’s leaders.
Last Friday, Mr. Zuma abruptly dismissed the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, in an apparent show of force meant to consolidate his faction’s power ahead of the A.N.C.’s national conference in December, when a new party leader — and most likely the country’s new president — will be chosen. The firing instead deepened divisions in the party and caused a backlash among voters.
Top party leaders condemned the firing, which was part of a broader cabinet reshuffle, saying that Mr. Zuma had not consulted them. The deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, called the decision “unacceptable.”
But on Wednesday, the A.N.C. said it accepted Mr. Zuma’s reason for firing Mr. Gordhan, which Mr. Mantashe said was “the irretrievable breakdown of the relationship between the president and a member of his cabinet.”
Mr. Zuma and Mr. Gordhan, members of two rival A.N.C. factions, have been engaged in a long dispute about control over party and state coffers. Seen as a bulwark against the misuse of public funds, Mr. Gordhan was respected for his oversight of state enterprises. His dismissal — and replacement by a Zuma loyalist — led the credit agency Standard & Poor’s to downgrade South Africa’s government debt to junk status.
The show of unity on Wednesday failed to close the widening fissures in South Africa’s governing party.
Mr. Zuma’s staunchest supporters held rallies and attacked his internal critics. Nomvula Mokonyane, the minister of water and sanitation, denounced S.&P. for the downgrade.
“The West can’t dictate to us,” Ms. Mokonyane told a gathering of A.N.C. youths, adding, “These junk ratings have nothing to do with financial ratings — it’s political ratings.”
On the other side, some A.N.C. veterans called for Mr. Zuma’s resignation, as did the party’s two closest traditional allies, the South African Communist Party and Cosatu, a powerful trade union federation.
Mr. Zuma’s second and final term as president ends in 2019, but the A.N.C. is scheduled to elect a new party leader at the conference in December.
Two of the leading contenders are Mr. Ramaphosa, who belongs to the mostly urban wing of the party, and Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma, a former chairwoman of the African Union who was once married to Mr. Zuma and who represents a mostly rural faction dependent on the patronage politics practiced by the president.
“What we had until the cabinet reshuffle was a stalemate,” said Steven Friedman, a political scientist at the University of Johannesburg. “Neither faction had a clear sense of who was winning or who was losing. Each side respected the other side’s territory. One side accepted that the finance minister would have to stay, and the other side accepted that the president would have to stay.”
“Now, of course, the stalemate is over,” Mr. Friedman said. “Zuma and his faction have chosen to break the stalemate.”
Whether or not Mr. Zuma’s faction prevails in December, the president will leave behind a greatly diminished A.N.C.
Under Mr. Zuma, the party of Nelson Mandela has become an organization dominated by corruption and patronage. Once admired across Africa for its moral standing, the A.N.C. now inspires disappointment and disillusionment.
Ever the survivor, Mr. Zuma has remained in office despite a series of scandals that would have felled a lesser tactician. Last year, South Africa’s highest court found that the president had violated the Constitution in his handling of a long-running corruption case involving his private home in Nkandla, in the southeast of the country. But the A.N.C. rebuffed opposition efforts to impeach the president.
“His conduct has caused serious damage to the A.N.C.,” said Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst. “His self-interest has always come before the interests of the A.N.C. and the country.”
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