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In South Africa Gordhan opens with a joke, but tone is serious

"I see we've created a bit of excitement for you," Gordhan, 66, said with a chuckle at the start of a news conference to mark his return to a role he filled to widespread acclaim from 2009 to 2014.

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South Africa's Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan gestures during a media briefing after he was reappointed to the position on Sunday night by President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria, South Africa December 14, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko play South Africa's Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan gestures during a media briefing after he was reappointed to the position on Sunday night by President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria, South Africa December 14, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (Reuters)

Introducing South Africa's third finance minister in five days, it was perhaps inevitable the government spokeswoman would get names wrong, confusing Pravin Gordhan, who was appointed on Sunday night, with Nhlanhla Nene, who was dismissed last week.

In between came David van Rooyen, a little-known backbencher with no central government experience whose period in charge of the purse strings of Africa's most sophisticated economy lasted less than 100 hours.

During that time, the rand fell 9 percent and bond yields soared as investors hit the panic button, fearing President Jacob Zuma had abandoned in dramatic style the fiscal discipline that has typified the ANC's approach to money in the two decades it has run the country since apartheid.

"I see we've created a bit of excitement for you," Gordhan, 66, said with a chuckle at the start of a news conference to mark his return to a role he filled to widespread acclaim from 2009 to 2014.

He then got down to the business at hand - trying to draw a line under the market turmoil and convince domestic and international investors that Pretoria and the ANC had not lost the plot, and remained committed to running a tight ship.

"We will stay the course of sound fiscal management," he said, making clear that the budget deficit and total public debt - at 47.5 percent of GDP - would not be allowed to blow out.

 

CATCH PHRASE

"Our expenditure ceiling is sacrosanct," he said, falling back several times on a catch phrase familiar from previous budgets delivered in the wake of the 2009 recession: "We can't spend money that we don't have."

Gordhan stressed his point by flanking himself with three heavy-hitters with the respect of the markets - deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago, and Lungisa Fuzile, the top civil servant at the Treasury.

The markets gave him qualified support, with the rand rising as much as 5 percent in early trade, although it lost some of those gains later, trading at 15.24 against the dollar at 1329 GMT, 4 percent firmer on the day.

However, the currency is still weaker than a week ago, before the fiasco over the shock and as yet unexplained dismissal of Nene, another fiscal conservative, and his replacement with a political lightweight.

When it came to discussing Zuma's motives in axing Nene before effecting a dramatic U-turn, Gordhan trod carefully, refusing to reveal anything about the thinking of his boss.

"There are times when you have to admit there was a miscalculation," he said.

As he wound up, there was room for one more moment of levity.

In response to a comment about investors and South Africans resorting to valium to soothe shattered nerves, he interjected: "As a former pharmacist, I can say we have moved beyond valium."

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