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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that leaders should listen to protesters who have taken to the streets demanding that President Jacob Zuma resign or be removed after a cabinet reshuffle triggered damaging credit downgrades.
Zuma is to step down as head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December but his second term as president only expires after a general election in 2019. Ramaphosa and Zuma's ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are the leading candidates vying to replace him.
Zuma is widely believed to support his ex-wife's candidacy, while Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman and former trade unionist, has the backing of the ANC's labour allies.
"People of our country are taking to the streets. They're raising their concerns, and I think what we should be doing as leaders is to listen to some of the concerns that are being raised," Ramaphosa told the eNCA news network on Sunday after attending an Easter church service in northern Limpopo province.
Ramaphosa's remarks are a marked contrast to Zuma's. He has accused the marchers of having racist motives. The protests have had mixed racial profiles, and drew tens of thousands to Pretoria on Wednesday and nationwide on April 7.
Zuma, who turned 75 on Wednesday, has survived previous protests. But the main opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) and other parties believe they can drum up support to force Zuma from office following his dismissal of respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in a cabinet reshuffle.
Fitch and S&P Global Ratings have downgraded South Africa's debt to "junk", citing Gordhan's dismissal as one reason.
South Africa's top court is considering whether a parliamentary motion of no confidence against Zuma should be taken by secret ballot. Opposition parties have said the motion would be more likely to succeed if held by secret ballot.
Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Alison Williams