By Joe Parkinson in Pretoria, South Africa and Gabriele Steinhauser in Johannesburg

A South African court on Wednesday ordered the release of a long-awaited report on whether President Jacob Zuma allowed one of the country's wealthiest families to influence cabinet appointments, as thousands of protesters gathered in the capital demanding the president's resignation.

Opposition leaders say the findings of the report--whose publication had been blocked for weeks by court bids from Mr. Zuma and two of his ministers--could lead to the impeachment of the president.

Cheers rang out from the public gallery of the High Court in Pretoria after the presiding judge ordered that the report must be released no later than 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Zuma's lawyer said that the president had dropped his bid to block its publication. She has previously argued that the president hadn't been given sufficient time to respond to the allegations made in the report, nor the opportunity to question witnesses.

"That report must be released so that we can hold all of those who are culpable in that report accountable," said Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, as he left the court building. "Jacob Zuma must resign, because Jacob Zuma is unfit to hold the office of the president."

The report's publication could mark a turning point in a brutal leadership battle in the African National Congress, which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Mr. Zuma, whose second term in office ends in 2019, has openly fought with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan over control of state finances,including the running of state-owned enterprises, anticorruption agencies and the central bank.

Ratings firms have warned that political infighting could lead to South African bonds being downgraded to junk status.

The outcome of the struggle inside the ANC is likely to dictate the path of Africa's most advanced economy--still reeling from the collapse of commodity prices, weak growth and stubbornly high unemployment--for the next decade.

The report was prepared by Thuli Madonsela, who until last month was South Africa's public protector, an office tasked with examining alleged wrongdoings by the government.

Ms. Madonsela wanted to publish her report into what she dubbed "state capture" by the rich Gupta family on Oct. 14, her last day in office, but passed it on to her successor following court interventions by Mr. Zuma and two of his closest allies--Cooperative Governance Minister Des Van Rooyen and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane.

Ms. Madonsela started her investigation following allegations from two senior ANC members claiming they had been offered cabinet posts by the Guptas, a family of Indian immigrants known for their closeness to the president who have built up billion-rand interests in strategic sectors including mining, technology and defense.

Both Mr. Zuma and the Guptas have denied the allegations.

The court order came as protesters gathered in three separate antigovernment demonstrations in Pretoria.

Meanwhile, police and protesters engaged in cat-and-mouse battles in the blocks that crisscross Pretoria's central business district. Antigovernment demonstrators torched tires and garbage bins, while riot police used roadblocks to limit their movement.

In the grounds of the city's St. Albans Cathedral, placard-waving demonstrators attended the first "Save South Africa" demonstration--a new platform of business,civil society and disaffected ANC officials against government corruption.

In nearby streets, South Africa's two largest opposition parties--the center-right Democratic Alliance and the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters--held their own protests, calling for Mr. Zuma to respect the constitution and to step down.

Each protest had different messages but they were unified by one theme: dissatisfaction with the leadership of Mr. Zuma, who they accuse of presiding over a dramatic expansion of cronyism and graft.

"For as long as we have Zuma as president of the country it is not possible to turn the country around," said Sipho Pityane, a former ANC former director-general of foreign affairs and chairman of mining giant AngloGold Ashanti. "At the heart of the problem we have a leader who is without honor or integrity."

Write to Joe Parkinson at joe.parkinson@wsj.com and Gabriele Steinhauser at gabriele.steinhauser@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 02, 2016 09:58 ET (13:58 GMT)

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