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South African Protesters Call For President Zuma's Resignation

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This year, South Africa has seen some of its biggest protests since Nelson Mandela's rainbow nation began. These days, it's not apartheid; it's a troubled economy and corruption under President Jacob Zuma that's causing the fury. That anger peaked this month when President Zuma fired his respected and politically-independent finance minister - not a great way to end the year. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been reporting on that story. Good morning.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

MONTAGNE: In a nutshell, what exactly happened when President Zuma announced that he'd replaced this finance minister who, as I've said, was highly respected?

QUIST-ARCTON: There was a jittery reaction from the markets. The South African currency, the rand, plummeted to an all-time low against the dollar - 16 to 1. And the dismissal of Nhlanhla Nene, who was known for his fiscal restraint and for trying to curb government spending, came shortly after Fitch had downgraded South Africa's economy to almost junk status. So the response was immediate - nerves and what on earth is going on in South Africa.

MONTAGNE: This replacement had to do with someone he was involved with personally and professionally.

QUIST-ARCTON: The thing is, President Jacob Zuma replaced him Nhlanhla Nene, who's known internationally for having shepherded South Africa's economy, with a governing ANC backbencher in Parliament who's little known and has no experience as a minister. But President Zuma was forced to u-turn after the furious response from ordinary South Africans, and within a week, South Africa had had three finance ministers. Now it's Pravin Gordhan, a former finance minister who is also internationally known and is seen as having done well as economy minister from 2009 to 2014. But it's egg on the president's face.

MONTAGNE: Here it is at the end of this year, when South Africa is still the most industrialized country in Africa. What's happening with its economy? That's the continent's second biggest.

QUIST-ARCTON: South Africa is a mineral and metals-producing country - gold and platinum. And as we know, the global market prices for these commodities has plummeted. So South Africa was already in - not a crisis, but certainly a downturn with the economy. Manufacturing has gone down. A huge mining conglomerate, Anglo American, within the past few weeks has announced that it's going to have to lose tens of thousands of jobs. That is going to hit South Africa right in its heart. So many people are saying this is not a time to be playing with the economy, President Zuma. It is not a time to be switching finance ministers because you do not agree with an independent finance minister who is trying to hold back government spending. Focus on South Africa; focus on the economy, and stop thinking about yourself. It's a very, very serious situation for this African giant.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is speaking to us from her base in Dakar, Senegal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.