Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid South Africa is hurtling this weekend towards a huge political train smash as its corrupt and beleaguered head of state, Jacob Zuma, manoeuvres to undermine the state’s two most respected officials whose exposés threaten to end his Presidency.

According to South African analysts Zuma may be toppled as the crisis intensifies or he may survive by declaring a state of emergency, taking near-dictatorial powers and undermining a constitution that was lauded as the most democratic in the world when Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black head of state in 1994

“South Africa has lived with uncertainty and agony for as long as it has been inhabited,” said Peter Bruce, editor-in-chief of Business Day, the nation's leading financial newspaper. “Slavery, ethnic war, colonialism and apartheid have damaged us all. It will take a century of pain and renewal to settle us. But our immediate future is fraught. This weekend will be big. Things have gone too far. The damage is too much. Jacob has broken the state.”

Zuma’s key targets as the crisis comes to a head are his own finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, internationally acclaimed for saving the economy this year from total collapse, and the feisty anti-corruption watchdog Thuli Madonsela- her official title is Public Protector.

What looks like the endgame for Zuma began with an announcement last Tuesday by the National Prosecuting Authority, headed by a Zuma placeman Shaun Abrahams, to charge Gordhan with fraud in relation to an alleged offence dating from 2010. The rand currency immediately went into freefall, losing four percent of its value. This followed another precipitous dip in the value of the currency nine months ago when Zuma appointed an unknown rural official as finance minister in an attempt, critics said, to enable Zuma to loot the Treasury. Under international pressure, Zuma unwillingly appointed Gordhan as finance minister to steady the ship, but he has since fought continuously to undermine the economy chief.

Among the many ironies as Abrahams presses ahead with the charges against the finance minister is that he has ignored a high court ruling that Zuma must be prosecuted on 783 charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering relating to the country’s deeply controversial multi-billion rand arms deal with European states, including Britain, Germany, Sweden and France.

“The charges against Pravin Gordhan [which relate to a pension payment made many years ago to the former deputy head of the country’s tax authority] is not an ordinary rule of law issue. This is an abuse of rule of law,” said SECTION27, one of the country’s leading social justice and legal watchdog organisations. The organisation is named after Section 27 of South Africa’s 1994 constitution which guarantees human rights.

“The charges are patently manipulated to suit ulterior motives," SECTION27 added. “South Africa is today at a crossroads. The charging of Pravin Gordhan threatens to pitch us into a political and economic crisis which will cause untold pain, new poverty and inequality … The road pursued by the President and his clique will lead to economic collapse, then deepening poverty, inequality and inevitably to an authoritarian dictatorship.”

Gordhan has been summoned to appear in court on November 2 to hear the charges against him. Gordhan responded by saying he would continue to do his job and promote ethical government in the face of harassment from the Presidency. He said the charges against him were “patently without merit … These legal proceedings are contaminated by abuse for political mischief ends.” He added that, although he has no confidence in Prosecutor Abrahams’ ability or willingness to grant him a fair hearing, “the fight against corruption, maladministration, and waste of public resources will continue."

Gordhan challenged Zuma to dismiss him if, as the odds suggest, the charges against him are thrown out. He will be supported in court by a phalanx of top African National Congress dissidents, led by 87-year-old Ahmed Kathrada, the last survivor of Nelson Mandela’s “old guard” who served nearly 30 years with him on Robben Island prison in the struggle against Apartheid.

“I will be there to accompany Pravin to court,” said Kathrada. “The charges are an attempt to lay the foundation for his removal from the post of finance minister. The National Treasury has really come to symbolise the fight against corruption in this country. And for that Pravin deserves all the support that is required.”

Meanwhile, Zuma succeeded – in the short term, at least – in delaying last Friday the publication of a new report by Madonsela, said to be a devastating exposure of corruption in government. Since she entered the Office of Public Protector seven years ago Madonsela, 54, whose term came to an end yesterday, has often exposed corruption at the heart of government. She famously and fearlessly investigated Zuma for looting public funds in the development of his extensive private home, which features a swimming pool, underground bunkers and tunnels, a helipad, chicken farm and houses for his many wives, at Nkandla in rural Zululand.

After a long and ugly battle, Zuma was ordered to refund the equivalent of £380,000 to public coffers. The sum was only about three percent of the costs of building Nkandla, but the verdict was enormously damaging to Zuma, cementing his reputation as a deeply corrupt politician.

Madonsela wanted to publish her latest and last report on Friday. It threatened to be many more times damaging than the Nklandla report. Among other things, it focuses on Zuma’s dealings with the India-born Gupta family, accused of influencing government appointments and securing illegally lucrative contracts from ministers close to Zuma. The Gupta business empire spans computer equipment, media and mining. The family lives on a big estate in northern Johannesburg which features four luxury mansions.

But Zuma blocked publication of Madonsela’s report by securing an interim interdict in Pretoria’s High Court, thus preventing its release until after she leaves the Office of Public Prosecutor. On Friday Madonsela told a crowded press conference, that her lawyers had secured a court guarantee that the report will be fully preserved and handed for safekeeping to the Speaker of Parliament. She said she will return to court next Tuesday in a next step to secure the report’s release.

Answering a torrent of questions over several hours, the soft-spoken Madonsela, lauded in South Africa as an exceptionally brave, honest and formidable corruption buster, said: “The standards I have held the government to account are the same standards I have held myself to.” Asked to advise officials in similar positions across Africa, she said: “Act on your conscience. Tell the truth. Hold the hands of your people to help them hold their governments to account.” She was applauded by journalists as she left the room.

Events as they unravel are bound to be dramatic. Gordhan is due to issue an interim budget in two weeks’ time. If he is toppled before then there will be fierce international reaction leading to a further plunge in the value of the rand.

The implications for the ruling ANC are profound - it faces its own acute dilemma. Act decisively and force Zuma from power, and it may tear the party apart. Fail to act, and allow him to continue his self-serving project, and the outcome may be the same. Editorially, the Mail and Guardian, which was at the media forefront of the anti-apartheid fight, said: “The expectation will be that the budget deficit will rise, unaffordable projects will be supported for bad reasons, state-owned enterprises that are under incompetent management will get more bailouts, guarantees or capital injections, and government finances will quickly deteriorate. Ratings will fall, funds will leave South Africa and the rand will grow even weaker.

“South Africans with assets will seek to move them abroad, and younger South Africans with marketable skills will look for jobs in countries with better prospects, including many in Africa.”

Zuma’s troubles are deep. The ANC was recently toppled from power in municipal elections in four big cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. However, no one doubts that Zuma, intelligence chief of the ANC’s military wing while it was in exile, will fight for survival with great ferocity. He has survived several criminal trials, including one on a charge of raping the daughter of a family friend. The 2006 trial was notorious because Zuma admitted that the woman, Fezeka Khwezi Kuzwayo, was HIV-positive and that he, president then of the National Aids Council, had sex with her without using a condom. He said it was no problem avoiding infection because afterwards he had taken a shower. Ever since, South Africa’s leading cartoonist, Zapiro, has portrayed the head of state with a shower head protruding from the top of his skull. The lengthy trial was highly controversial, not least because hundreds of Zuma supporters gathered outside the court chanting “Burn the Bitch.” In the end, Zuma escaped conviction when the judge decided, on balance, that the sex was consensual.

Fezeka Kuzwayo fled from South Africa after the trial and was given asylum in the Netherlands. She returned recently to Natal, where she died last week aged 41.