JOHANNESBURG Oct 17 (Reuters) - South African business leaders expressed their support on Monday for Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan as he faces a fraud trial that the opposition says is politically motivated.
The message of support, published in the Business Day newspaper, comes a day after Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa - a possible future president - expressed concern about Gordhan's prosecution and said the minister had his support.
The 15 business people, including former chief executives of Standard Bank and retailer Massmart, lauded Gordhan as an "outstanding" political leader.
"We have no doubt about the need for his critical leadership at this time of vital economic importance," they said.
"South Africa's democratic transformation cannot afford to have a man of Gordhan's abilities distracted or sidelined."
Prosecutors have ordered Gordhan to appear in court on Nov. 2 to answer charges that he cost the tax department, that he used to head, 1.1 million rand ($79,000) by approving early retirement for a deputy commissioner and re-hiring him as a consultant.
Opposition parties and critics say the charges are part of a ploy to muzzle the Treasury, which has been critical of the political influence yielded by allies of President Jacob Zuma.
Investors are worried that Gordhan could be removed from his job, impeding efforts to kick-start the economy and raising the risk of a sovereign credit rating downgrade to junk status.
On Sunday, Deputy President Ramaphosa, who is seen as a strong contender to replace Zuma when his term ends in 2019, said the case was of concern to many South Africans.
"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," he said.
($1 = 13.8542 rand) (Reporting by Stella Mapenzauswa; Editing by James Macharia and Robin Pomeroy)