PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma must go. Yes, he has backed down in the face of national outrage, including that of leading members of his own party, at his summary replacement of his highly regarded finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, with a political nonentity named Desmond van Rooyen.

That at least gives us a moment of respite.

But who can have confidence in Zuma’s judgment any longer? Not since Caligula made his horse a consul has there been such an insane governmental appointment. Yet such a decision, taken at a time of impending economic crisis, seems to have taken Zuma totally by surprise. He didn’t expect the rand to plunge to a record low of R16 to the dollar. He didn’t expect the investment community, foreign and domestic, to be appalled. He didn’t expect the JSE to nosedive, with major commercial bank shares falling between 16% and 20%.

What the hell did he expect? The consequences were obvious to just about everybody throughout the country the moment the announcement was made. Yet Zuma was taken aback.

The top six executives of the African National Congress (ANC) tried to warn him not to do it. But Zuma brushed them aside. Like the old Roman emperor, he decided to teach them a lesson and show that he could do as he pleased. After all he was president of the most important country in Africa, which was the biggest continent in the world, bigger than all the others put together (as he falsely and fatuously told a business forum the other day). So he went ahead.

Then the economy fell in on him. And now he has panicked, causing him to bring back the admirable but sidelined Pravin Gordhan — to whom I’m afraid he has handed a poisoned chalice. Gordhan will have just two months to draw up a budget to present to Parliament on February 24. I’ve no doubt Nene had already drafted a budget outline, but I’m afraid Gordhan will have to start all over again because Zuma’s little shenanigan will have skewed all the numbers.

As for Desmond van Rooyen, he must surely go into the Guinness Book of Records for the shortest term in office of any finance minister. As it turns out, his credentials for the job were not great. His only financial experience appears to have been a stint as an Ellerines furniture salesman.

His qualifications for his new job as local government minister are even less propitious. Van Rooyen’s only experience of local government was as mayor of Merafong.

Van Rooyen’s term as mayor there didn’t end happily. He so fell out with his citizenry that they burnt down his house and kicked him out of the township. Now Zuma apparently regards him as an appropriate person to take charge of all municipalities across the country. In a local government election year, nogal.

What does all this tell us about Zuma’s sense of judgment? I suggest it tells us he cannot be trusted with any major decision again. If the new SA is to be saved from complete catastrophe, those leading ANC figures who stood up to him over the weekend must ensure that he is "recalled," as Thabo Mbeki was, as soon as possible.

For, make no mistake, all his rapid backtracking the economic damage Zuma has caused will not be repaired anytime soon. The shock has been great and international investors have long memories.

Yes, the rand has recovered marginally from its historic low. But within weeks rather than months expect to see all the rating agencies downgrade us to junk status. Then watch the rand slump to R20/$.

Over time it will gradually begin to claw its way back, but it will take years. In the meantime it is the people who will suffer, the poor worst of all. It all spells recession. Jobs will be lost. Inflation, particularly food inflation, will rocket — aggravated by the drought. We are going to have to import millions of tons of maize, the staple of the poor, and with the rand at rock bottom it is the poorest who will feel the most pain.

Money will move offshore, so will more South African companies, seeking safe havens elsewhere. Jobs will go with them. I guess the ANC Youth League won’t mind: I’m told its president, Collen Maine, spent Friday night urging Zuma to overhaul the Cabinet.

We cannot survive another three years of Zuma. And certainly not another 10 after that of his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who would serve as his surrogate to keep him out of jail and the family secure. We need change.

Why did Zuma do this? I think he did so because he has become intolerant of opposition. He has got away with so much, from the arms deal to Nkandla to his new presidential jet, he felt he had reached the point where he could make his wish his command.

I’ve no doubt he was miffed that Nene was standing up to his special woman friend, Dudu Myeni, who is doing her best to fly South African Airways into the ground. Perhaps she asked him to do something about it. But as Nene himself has implied, it was the minister’s refusal to sign off on a deal with Russia to provide SA with nuclear power without first doing a cost-benefit analysis of the project that was the real issue.

The projected cost of the project is said to be in the region of R3-trillion and Nene has said repeatedly that SA can’t afford it. But Zuma is thought to have reached a private agreement with President Vladimir Putin and is determined to go ahead with it.

Why is he so determined? This pitches us into the realm of conjecture, and I can only speculate. I believe Zuma has never liked dealing with the West and has become increasingly exasperated by his inability to understand capitalist economics — especially those pesky rates agencies. So he wants to turn his back on them and let Putin — who in turn is eager to re-establish Russia as a global superpower — draw SA into his circle.

I have written before about what that nuclear deal would mean for us. It is an appalling prospect. We don’t have the money, so Russia would build and operate the power stations for us, charging our consumers for the power used.

Put another way, Russia would effectively take over Eskom. It would become a Russian state company, supplying SA with all its electricity — at a cost 10, maybe 50, times more than we are paying now.

More ominously, it would mean that Russia would effectively own SA. We would become an economic dependency of Russia. We would have to do everything the Kremlin wanted us to do, under threat of their throwing a switch and plunging us into darkness.

We would have handed over our hard-won independence to one of the world’s nastiest dictatorships.

Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail