Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s new president, on Sunday appointed Trevor Manuel, the country’s respected finance minister, to head a powerful new centralised planning body, reassuring business critics who feared the new leader would shift policy to the left.

In another appointment closely watched by financial markets, Pravin Gordhan, the highly regarded head of the country’s tax collection service, is to take over from Mr Manuel at the finance ministry.

Investors had feared that Mr Zuma, whose election campaign was supported by the Communist party and the trade union movement, might oversee a populist lurch to the left.

But his opening appointments, as well as his inauguration speech on Saturday, have been pitched at reassuring investors. In particular, Mr Zuma has stressed the need to improve government efficiency and provide better public services, one of the shortcomings of the former government.

Mr Zuma said on Sunday that Mr Manuel was being “given a new structure, a very powerful structure, to work out a national plan of government. It will be all encompassing and is not going to exclude economic matters”.

Jeff Gable, head of research at Absa Capital in Johannesburg, said: “There is not a lot that is scary here. The government has fallen short on delivery and has now introduced a structure designed to put things right.”

In his inauguration speech, Mr Zuma promised more efficient government, as well as a new partnership “in which there is a place for all South Africans, black and white”.

This was an implicit swipe at former president Thabo Mbeki, whom he ousted as leader of the ruling African National Congress 18 months ago and who was accused by his critics of abandoning the reconciliatory ethos of Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president.

From the planning position, Mr Manuel appears poised to play a key role. Closely identified with Mr Mbeki, Mr Manuel often sparred with Mr Zuma’s leftwing backers and at one time was expected to leave the government.

As finance minister since 1996, he is credited with many of the previous government’s economic achievements, especially the maintenance of stability during the early years of transition from apartheid.

William Gumede, a political analyst, dismissed concerns that Mr Manuel’s powers might be notional. “He will be based in Zuma’s own office and have political backing to do things,” he said.

Mr Gordhan’s appointment, meanwhile, should ensure that the Treasury – one of the best performing government departments under Mr Manuel’s watch – will continue to do well.

“The markets will be happy,” said John Cairns, currency strategist at Rand Merchant Bank, of Mr Gordhan’s appointment.

A pharmacist, Mr Gordhan worked with Mr Zuma as part of the ANC’s underground movement in the 1970s and 1980s. He took over at the tax authority in 1999 and saw revenue collection grow from 24 per cent to 28 per cent of gross domestic product in 2008.

“He is a technocrat who has delivered like no one else in this government,” said Mr Gumede.

“He has also recruited really competent people, going for good technicians rather than those who just have the political credentials.”

There was room in the government for senior Communist party leaders such as Blade Nzimande, one of Mr Zuma’s closest allies, who was made minister of higher education.

Tokyo Sexwale, the prominent black businessman who is a leading beneficiary of the government’s empowerment policies, is to take over at a newly created ministry of human settlement, a position that includes responsibility for housing.

Additional reporting by Tom Burgis

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