South Africa's Zuma orders ministers to tackle university 'mayhem'

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has ordered his ministers to tackle student protests that have shut down most universities, a cabinet spokesman said on Thursday, amid concerns over the impact of the disruption on state finances and the economy.

The students’ refusal to accept fee hikes is another blow for Africa’s most advanced economy, which is at risk of being cut to “junk” by ratings agencies later this year.

“President Jacob Zuma has instructed the justice, crime prevention and security cluster to deal with the mayhem that is destroying our institutions of higher learning,” Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency, told a post-cabinet media briefing.

Education is an emotive issue in South Africa, where the black majority was largely excluded from higher learning during white minority rule which ended in 1994.

Last year students demanding free education marched on Zuma’s offices in the capital Pretoria, prompting him to freeze fee increases. However last week the government announced fee hikes of up to eight percent, leading to the disruption of classes at most universities.

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“Out of 26 universities only nine of them are operational,” University of Johannesburg Vice Chancellor Ihron van Rensburg told the ENCA news channel on Thursday.

In a separate statement Zuma’s office rejected rumors on social media that he had reshuffled the cabinet.

Investors are highly sensitive to cabinet reshuffles in South Africa after Zuma’s decision last December to fire two finance ministers in the space of three days sent the rand currency plummeting.

His actions raised concerns about the ability of the treasury to withstand political meddling and stick to promises to cut spending.

More recently investors have been rattled by a police investigation of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

“... the political turmoil and pressures (around Gordhan) are certainly of concern,” Standard & Poor’s managing director for sub-Saharan Africa, Konrad Reuss, said on Thursday on the sidelines of a banking conference in Johannesburg.

In June S&P’s analysts left South Africa’s BBB- rating on a ‘negative’ outlook. Fitch has an equivalent rating of the country’s debt also with a negative outlook.

Zuma, hit by scandals, survived an impeachment vote in parliament earlier this year but led the ruling ANC to its worst ever election result in August, losing three major cities to opposition parties, and bleeding support from urban voters.

Reporting by Wendell Roelf and Mfuneko Toyana; Writing by TJ Strydom; Editing by Gareth Jones