By Mfuneko Toyana
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's African National Congress "closed ranks" around President Jacob Zuma after two key allies of the ruling party called for his resignation following a cabinet reshuffle that cost the country one of its investment-grade credit ratings.
The rand fell more than 1 percent and bonds weakened after ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told a news briefing on Wednesday that the ANC would not support removing Zuma, whose party leadership role ends in December. Zuma's presidential term will finish in 2019.
Last Thursday's dismissal of finance minister Pravin Gordhan, a totem of policymaking stability for many foreign investors, was criticized by unions, civil society groups and the opposition, and has revived pressure on Zuma to quit.
Since taking office in 2009, the 74-year-old president has repeatedly denied accusations of corruption, and senior ANC officials have backed him.
S&P Global Ratings cited Gordhan's departure as one reason for its downgrade of South Africa to "junk" in an unscheduled credit rating review on Monday, a move that is set to push up the country's borrowing costs.
Mantashe said the ANC had accepted the "irretrievable breakdown of the relationship" between Zuma and Gordhan as the reason the finance minister was sacked.
Gordhan's removal has deepened a rift within the ruling party, with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a leading candidate to replace Zuma as ANC president, describing it on Friday as "totally, totally unacceptable".
The South African Communist Party (SACP) and the country's biggest trade union, Cosatu, both historic allies of the ANC, have called on Zuma to step down following the sacking.
Mantashe had also openly criticized Zuma's actions but he painted a different picture on Wednesday, saying the ANC would "close ranks" around the president and the party would iron out its differences with Cosatu and SACP.
The events that unfolded after the reshuffle had "created anxiety and undue confusion as a result of the discordant views, in particular of the National Officials of the ANC," Mantashe said, referring to the criticism directed at Zuma.
"The officials ... have further acknowledged that their public dissonance on the matter was a mistake that should not be committed again."
Half of the ANC's "Top Six" group of officials, including Ramaphosa and Mantashe, had expressed disquiet at Gordhan's sacking. But Zuma, also one of the six, has the support of two other members and influential groups in the ANC, sources say.
Analysts said Zuma remains in favor among grassroots members and can count on the backing of large sections of the party, including the youth and women's leagues.
Zuma is a charismatic figure who has dodged one political minefield after another. He has successfully portrayed himself as a man of the people, loves to sing and dance at public rallies and enjoys wide support from the ANC rank-and-file.
A former member of the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe military wing, Zuma rose to become head of intelligence, a post that gave him leverage with allies and opponents alike. Zuma has used his network to sideline opponents to shore up his position, critics who worked with him have said.
Zuma said on Tuesday in his first public comments since the reshuffle that people should remain calm.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party said it had filed an urgent court application to have Zuma's decision to remove Gordhan and deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas set aside on the grounds that it was unlawful.
The DA has planned a march on Friday against Zuma in the commercial hub Johannesburg, saying his decision to reshuffle the cabinet is likely to hurt the economy and cost yet more jobs. The party's no-confidence motion against Zuma in parliament will be held on April 18, parliament said.
The ANC has a commanding majority in the national assembly. Similar votes have failed in the past.
"There is no ANC member who will vote for an opposition motion," Mantashe said.
Political analysts were not surprised by the ruling party's stance on Wednesday.
"Zuma stays. Rand drops," political analyst Daniel Silke said, while another political commentator, Nic Borain, said Zuma had reasserted his authority. "Quite frankly he still controls the decision-making organs of the ANC," he said.
Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte said Zuma had told top ANC officials in December of his decision to dismiss Gordhan, but that they had persuaded him to delay the action.
Duarte told the news briefing Zuma would meet the party's integrity commission on April 9, but gave no details. The ANC formed the commission in 2013 to help protect its image and deal with members of the party alleged to have behaved improperly.
Mantashe said the ANC had confidence in new Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, who would retain policies set under Gordhan.
Mantashe denied that Gordhan was fired solely because of an intelligence report that accused him and Jonas of plotting with banks in London to undermine the South African economy, saying it was not the only reason for Gordhan's removal.
Ramaphosa had accused Zuma of removing Gordhan on the basis of a "spurious" report and local media have also reported its existence.
"If the relationship has broken down ... you go for a divorce," Mantashe said.
(Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Janet Lawrence)