By TJ Strydom
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's ruling African National Congress said on Tuesday its executive committee stood by President Jacob Zuma in a debate about whether he should step down after several officials called for his resignation.
The ANC said there had been a call for him to leave his post but did not confirm media reports that this was made by four ministers and denied reports of a formal no-confidence vote during the debate on Monday night.
Political analysts said Zuma's leadership would be weakened by the challenge even though he survived the call to step down.
Since taking office in 2009, Zuma, 74, has been plagued by accusations of corruption, which he has repeatedly denied, while senior ANC officials have backed him. But near record unemployment has exacerbated discontent with his government.
The rand fell by as much as 2.5 percent against the dollar and bonds weakened after the ANC announced Zuma would stay. Traders had hoped for a resolution to months of political uncertainty in Africa's most industrialized economy.
"The NEC did not support the call for the president to step down," ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe told a news conference. "This issue was debated openly, robustly and, as we said, sometimes it was very difficult for members themselves."
In the run-up to the debate there had been speculation that the ANC would take a no-confidence vote.
"There was no vote of no confidence in that meeting ... There was a call for the president to step down, and that call ultimately was not acceded to after persuasion among comrades in the meeting," Mantashe said.
"The fact that we have not forced a president of the ANC to step down means that we affirm him as the president of the ANC and president of the republic."
The opposition said despite Zuma surviving the call to step down, the ANC had suffered widening divisions.
"Despite the brave face and united facade depicted by Gwede Mantashe, the ANC is more divided now than it has ever been – and this will only worsen," opposition leader and head of the Democratic Alliance party Mmusi Maimane said in a statement.
Mantashe said officials of the ANC's national executive committee who called for Zuma to step down would not be punished.
South African media reported on Tuesday, without naming sources, that Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom had proposed holding the vote to oust Zuma, Beeld, an Afrikaans-language daily had reported. Hanekom was unavailable to comment. Other media said at least four ministers had turned against him.
Separately, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa called for calm in a speech to local government officials in Johannesburg, saying "recent events within the state have raised concern in many quarters about the direction of the country."
NKC African Economics Head of Research Francois Conradie said although it was unlikely that the ANC would act against Zuma and warned that support for the party was declining.
"If they had gotten rid of him it might have improved perception of the party," he said.
Zuma's popularity has waned due to a raft of scandals that partly led to the ANC's worst electoral performance since it took power in 1994 after apartheid fell. But he remains in favor among the ANC grassroots and can count on the backing of large sections of the party, including the youth and women's leagues.
Zuma is expected to stand down as ANC president at a party conference in December next year, ahead of national elections in 2019 when his tenure as president will end.
Although no one has declared an ambition to compete for Zuma's post, debate over who should succeed Zuma has heated up. With its dominance of South African politics, the ANC is widely expected to win in 2019, making its next leader almost certain to become president.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, told reporters in Johannesburg that the affirmation of South Africa's investment grade by Fitch and Moody's showed that the country was doing well despite "political noise... there are good things that are happening," he told media after meeting business leaders.
The state prosecutor dropped fraud charges in late October against Gordhan, executing a U-turn in a case that rocked financial markets and drew accusations of political meddling.
With the economy expected to grow by only half a percent this year, South Africa has been racing to avert a downgrade of its sovereign debt to sub-investment status, which would raise its borrowing costs and deter investment.
Zuma has faced several corruption scandals, more recently when the nation's anti-graft watchdog this month asked for a judge to investigate alleged influence-peddling by a wealthy family Zuma has called his friends. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
In March, the Constitutional Court ordered Zuma to repay some of $16 million spent on enhancing his Nkandla home in rural KwaZulu-Natal province. Zuma, who weathered a motion of no-confidence in parliament over the cost of the renovations, has since paid back more than $500,000 as required by the court.
($1 = 13.7952 rand)
(Additional reporting by Mfuneko Toyana and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Writing by James Macharia; editing by Anna Willard)