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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa came out in support of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on Sunday and said fraud charges brought against him should not be allowed to undermine his efforts to revitalise the economy.
Prosecutors have ordered Gordhan to appear in court next month, in what his supporters and analysts say looks like a plot to discredit and oust a man who has defied close allies of President Jacob Zuma.
"Events of the past few days regarding summonses served on Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan have been of concern to many South Africans across all sectors of society," said Ramaphosa, who is seen as a strong contender to replace Zuma when his term ends in 2019.
"I lend my support to Minister Gordhan as he faces charges brought against him by the National Prosecuting Authority," Ramaphosa added.
Ramaphosa said the charges had been announced as Gordhan prepared to deliver his Medium Term Budget Statement on Oct. 26. The legal action, which shook markets and hit the rand, also comes as the country is bracing for possible credit ratings downgrades.
"Whatever the legal challenges that Minister Gordhan may face, we must not undermine the work that the government jointly with leaders of business and labour have been doing to stimulate domestic and international investment in our economy," Ramaphosa said.
Despite the charges, Zuma has also continued to express his support for Gordhan and denied talk of a rift.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) suffered its worst-ever local election results in August, widening divisions in the ruling party.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi was quoted as saying in the Sunday Times newspaper that the decision to prosecute Gordhan was "a declaration of war."
"We want law and order, not institutions used to fight nefarious political battles," he was quoted as telling the newspaper.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, renewed his party's call for Zuma to resign and called on South Africans to join in a solidarity march in Pretoria on Nov. 2 when Gordhan is scheduled to appear in court.
Addressing a televised news conference, Maimane said it was critical to defend the integrity of the Treasury.
"Our view is that all of the machinations that are taking place are Jacob Zuma's action in trying to gain access to Treasury ... We can't sit back and allow that to happen," he said.
Legal experts have said the charges against Gordhan would be extremely hard to prove in court as they would have to show he intentionally flouted the law when he granted early retirement to a deputy commissioner at the revenue service and then re-hired him as a consultant.
The drama is unfolding as Zuma battles in court to prevent the reinstatement of hundreds of corruption charges against him which were dropped in 2009, allowing him to run for president.
Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Mark Potter and Keith Weir