President Thabo Mbeki bowed to heavy pressure from his own party to resign Saturday, tossed to the sidelines of the economic powerhouse he built up as punishment for allegedly abusing his power in trying to quash a popular rival.
The swiftness of the ouster likely will stoke fears about the political and financial direction of South Africa, particularly if key Cabinet ministers decide to quit in solidarity with Mbeki.
But the change also allows the governing African National Congress to declare its internal leadership battle over and turn its attention to next year's elections, when key concerns will be about corruption and demands from the poor for jobs and houses.
Even as it demanded he step down, the ANC praised Mbeki for overseeing unprecedented growth. But little of the wealth created since he succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999 has trickled down to the black majority that had hoped for more with the end of apartheid.
The result is that poor blacks have flocked to the ANC's populist leader, Jacob Zuma, a one-time Mbeki protege who became a potent foe. He is considered front-runner for next year's presidential election, but parliament will pick an interim leader to take over from Mbeki.
While Zuma and Mbeki espouse similar views of South Africa's future, they differ sharply in style. Aloof and donnish, Mbeki won praise from business but never attained the public support enjoyed by the personable, energetic Zuma, particularly among leftists, union members and young people.
Many poor people lionize Zuma as a leader who understands the pain of the millions of South Africans who remain on the margins of society.
The Young Communist League said Mbeki's departure gives the government "an opportunity to intensify the provision of quality services to our people, especially the working class and the poor."
Interim to be appointed
Mbeki came under pressure from his party to quit following a judge's ruling last week that he may have had a role in Zuma being charged with corruption. Mbeki, who was due to leave office next year after two terms as president, denied that but gave in to the demands Saturday.
The ANC's secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, said Mbeki would remain president until an interim one was appointed, but Mbeki was already stepping back. He sent the foreign minister to head the delegation Mbeki had planned to take to the U.N. General Assembly.
Mantashe said parliament, which is controlled by the ANC, would meet soon to formalize the process for replacing Mbeki. Parliament elects the president in South Africa.
A major concern was threats by key Cabinet ministers to quit over Mbeki's removal. Attention was especially focused on Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, who has shared the credit with Mbeki for South Africa's sustained economic growth and investor-friendly policies over the past decade.
Mantashe said Zuma was meeting with Cabinet ministers hoping to persuade them to stay on, saying the top priority was "ensuring the smooth running of the country."
Speaking to reporters, Mantashe said that after meeting all of Friday and into the early hours Saturday, a high-level ANC committee "decided to recall the president" before his term in office expires in April.
Hours later, the president's office issued a terse statement:
"Following the decision of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress to recall President Thabo Mbeki, the president has obliged and will step down after all constitutional requirements have been met."
Mbeki's spokesman said there would be no further comment Saturday.
'Settling political scores'
South Africans vote for parties, not individuals. That puts a premium on party loyalty and discipline among legislators and allows political leaders to quickly make radical changes.
Although Mbeki's removal came quicker than many people expected, South Africans had been anticipating a shift from Mbeki to Zuma at least since last December, when Zuma defeated the president in a party election for the ANC's leadership.
Helen Zille, leader of South Africa's main opposition party, told state television that the ANC has made its internal problems a crisis for the country. "It's about revenge, it's about settling political scores," she said.
Mantashe insisted the move to remove Mbeki was meant to restore unity and stability to party and country, not to punish him.
But many saw it as Mbeki's defeat, and it opened the way for opponents to question the ANC over how a leader who tried to oust an allegedly corrupt aide was removed while the accused stands on the brink of becoming president.
Mbeki fired Zuma as his national deputy president in 2005, after Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of trying to elicit a bribe to deflect investigations into a multibillion-dollar international arms deal.
Initial charges were withdrawn against Zuma, but the chief prosecutor said last December that he had enough evidence to bring new ones. That comment came within days of Zuma defeating Mbeki in voting for ANC president.
In his ruling Sept. 12, Judge Christopher Nicholson said it appeared Mbeki and his justice minister colluded with prosecutors against Zuma as part of the "titanic power struggle" within the ANC. Mbeki indignantly denied the accusation.
South Africa emerged from years of institutionalized racism in 1994 and entered an era of reconciliation embodied by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. Mbeki took over in 1999 and ushered in sustained economic growth averaging nearly 5 percent a year.
Many poor blacks disdained those achievements, complaining the benefits weren't reaching the masses. Others criticized Mbeki for failing to fight the country's crippling crime, and health activists were dismayed that he played down South Africa's devastating AIDS crisis.
Mbeki is regarded by many Africans as a statesmen for promoting what he calls Africa's renaissance and mediating conflicts ranging from Sudan to Ivory Coast to Congo.
For many years, his quiet diplomacy in troubled Zimbabwe was criticized as ineffective and biased toward Robert Mugabe, the autocratic president. But last week, he persuaded Mugabe to share power with the opposition. It was a retreat after nearly three decades of unchallenged power, although talks on the formation of a coalition Cabinet have since deadlocked.