JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - They were allies in the long struggle for democracy and then partners in government. But, yesterday President Thabo Mbeki fired the deputy president, Jacob Zuma, because of corruption allegations, calling into question who will become the country's next president.
Mbeki chose a televised special session of Parliament to make the announcement.
He told the country he was dismissing his No. 2 to "strengthen our democracy, reinforce the accountability of those who hold public office and deepen the confidence of the masses of our people."
He said he fired his "comrade" to end a crisis that some experts called South Africa's biggest challenge since the African National Congress rose to dominance 11 years ago under former President Nelson Mandela.
Zuma, 63, who was considered a serious contender to succeed Mbeki when his second and final term expires in 2009, sounded conciliatory yesterday. "I accept and respect his pronouncement," he said, according to news reports. He again denied wrongdoing and said, "My conscience is clear."
Mandela, who rarely comments publicly on political matters, told reporters he was "deeply saddened" by Zuma's fall but that "we fully support the president in this difficult time in the life of our government, nation and organization."
Serious questions about Zuma's political and legal fate arose June 2 when Durban businessman Schabir Shaik was convicted of corruption. Judge Hillary Squires concluded that Shaik paid Zuma nearly $200,000 over several years for political access and helped arrange a bribe from a French arms company to stymie a government investigation.
Squires sentenced Shaik, whose family helped finance underground efforts to topple apartheid, to 15 years in prison.
In his findings, Squires said Shaik and Zuma had a "generally corrupt" relationship. In 2003, the country's top prosecutor had said "prima facie" evidence linked Zuma to corruption but declined to prosecute, saying it would have been difficult to win.
But the firing was not entirely expected. "It would be remarkable in its newsworthiness and drama in any country," said Saul Dubow, a historian of the ANC at the University of Sussex in Britain. "I think it's particularly so in South Africa, because of the untested nature of this democracy.
"Zuma's obviously very popular among trade unionists and ordinary kind of ANC supporters," Dubow said. "On the other hand, people who saw it as a test of Mbeki's presidency are very relieved."
Zuma will not vanish from the political stage. He remains deputy president of the ANC, and under the South African Constitution it is Parliament that elects the country's president. If the party retains its overwhelming majority in Parliament and eventually elects Zuma as its leader, he would also become president of the country.
David Monyae, a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said prosecutors should charge Zuma so he can defend himself in court. ""He can never be president under this kind of a cloud unless he goes through the court and is proven innocent."
Mbeki, in his speech, spoke warmly of Zuma.
"We have worked together under difficult and challenging conditions for 30 years," he said. "I am certain that I speak on behalf of all who have served with him in the Cabinet when I say that we shall remain friends, colleagues and comrades in the service of the people."
Though Zuma and Mbeki played prominent parts in the anti-apartheid struggle, their backgrounds and roles were very different.
Mbeki, 62, was educated in Europe and served in the ANC from exile. Zuma grew up poor and had little formal schooling. As a member of the ANC's sabotage force by the age of 20, he was arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island for 10 years, eventually going to Mozambique and Zambia.
While Mbeki is seen as more cerebral and inclined to free-market economic policy, Zuma has what Monyae called "man of the people" appeal and sympathy for programs geared to redistributing wealth and helping poorer South Africans.
That helps explain his deep popularity at the grass roots level and in the trade unions. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, a vocal Zuma supporter, seemed caught off guard by Mbeki's decision.
But spokesman Patrick Craven summed up the mood at union headquarters: "No one's happy."