updated 6/14/2005 10:58:32 AM ET 2005-06-14T14:58:32

President Thabo Mbeki dismissed his deputy Tuesday after he was caught up in a corruption scandal, throwing wide open the question of who will become the next leader of South Africa.

Deputy President Jacob Zuma, who retains widespread support, had been groomed to succeed Mbeki at the helm of Africa’s economic and diplomatic powerhouse when he stands down in 2009.

Mbeki noted that Zuma, 63, has not been charged, but said a high court judge’s ruling that he had a “generally corrupt” relationship with his financial adviser required the president to act.

“I have come to the conclusion that the circumstances dictate that in the interest of the honorable deputy president, the government, our young democratic system and our country, it would be best to release the honorable Jacob Zuma from his responsibilities as deputy president of the republic and member of the Cabinet,” Mbeki told a special joint session of Parliament.

Zuma bowed out gracefully, telling a news conference that “freedom and democracy are more important than us as individuals.” He retains his post as deputy president of the governing African National Congress.

Inquiry possible
Zuma’s longtime friend and adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced June 8 to 15 years in prison for corruption and fraud. Following Shaik’s conviction, the National Prosecuting Authority has said it is considering opening a new investigation against Zuma after concluding in 2003 that a case against him was “unwinnable.”

The high court in the eastern coastal city of Durban found that Shaik made payments to Zuma totaling $178,000 in violation of anti-corruption legislation to fund a lavish lifestyle.

Judge Hillary Squires said Zuma was aware of his friend’s efforts to also secure him a $74,000 a year bribe from French arms trading company Thint Holdings — formerly Thomson CSF — to deflect corruption investigations related to a massive 1999 weapons deal.

Opposition leaders, who had demanded Zuma’s resignation, praised Mbeki’s action.

“He faced a choice between two difficult paths. ... Yet in the end, he chose to uphold principle over politics,” said Tony Leon, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance. “We have shown the world that South Africa is not among those nations who allow corruption to unravel the fabric of their country’s soul.”

Mbeki, who has repeatedly pledged to stamp out corruption, said he continued to hold Zuma in “high regard.”

“We have worked together under difficult conditions for 30 years,” Mbeki said. “I wish to thank him for the service he has rendered as part of the executive, at national and provincial levels, sparing neither strength nor effort to ensure that, with each passing day, we build a better life for all South Africans.”

Trip canceled
Mbeki had canceled a trip to Qatar to attend a summit of developing countries to deal with the political crisis that has rocked his government since Squires’ verdict.

Earlier Tuesday, Mbeki briefed top members of the ANC and its allies, the South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Zuma remains hugely popular with the movement’s rank and file, who had demanded that he be given his day in court. Some even suggested the white judge’s verdict was racially motivated.

Mbeki is required under South African law to step down at the end of his second presidential term in 2009 and Zuma had been widely expected to succeed him.

Mbeki did not announce a replacement as deputy president. Local media speculated the ANC’s national chairman and Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota was the most likely contender. Another possibility was Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — Zuma’s ex-wife.

Opponent: 'Decent human being'
Mbeki chose Zuma — an ethnic Zulu — as deputy president in 1999 in a gesture toward the troubled province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Whereas Mbeki is regarded as an aloof intellectual, Zuma is seen as warm and approachable.

Even Leon, the acerbic opposition leader, described him as “an amiable and decent human being who radiates a sense of civility and humanity.”

Zuma received no formal schooling, but joined the ANC’s military wing in the 1960s, rising through the ranks to head the then banned-group’s intelligence activities.

He was imprisoned for 10 years on Robben Island and spent many more years in exile. It was there that he became friends with Shaik, who was at the time the main conduit for funds from sympathetic governments to the ANC.

After apartheid’s demise in 1994, Zuma joined the provincial government of his native KwaZulu-Natal before being appointed deputy president.

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