CAPE TOWN — South Africa’s embattled president, Jacob Zuma, resigned on Wednesday, putting an end to a period of scandal and mismanagement that threatened to undermine the party of Nelson Mandela.
Zuma’s resignation leaves his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, as the country’s acting leader, and the person now charged with salvaging the legacy of Africa’s most famous liberation movement.
Zuma, who was once revered as a hero of that movement, served time as a political prisoner alongside Mandela in his youth. But Zuma’s nine years in office, marred by a string of corruption allegations, drove even party loyalists away from the once-invincible African National Congress (ANC).
To many here, the most destructive aspect of Zuma’s legacy was his failure to deliver on the promises of post-apartheid South Africa. Twenty-four years after Mandela rose to power promising a rainbow nation of shared prosperity, the country remains one of the world’s most unequal, with many black South Africans living in conditions much like those they endured under the white-nationalist government.
For years, Zuma refused to acknowledge that reality, driving tens of thousands of South Africans into the streets to call for his resignation. Until late Wednesday night, it appeared that resignation might not come.
Zuma refused to step down even after the ANC’s leadership formally recalled him on Tuesday, laying bare the divisions that had festered within the party for years. Finally, in a rambling television address, he announced that he would leave office, “even though I disagree with the decision of the leadership of my organization.”
Instead, he said, his decision was spurred by altercations that had taken place outside the party headquarters in Johannesburg in recent days.
“No life should be lost in my name, and also the ANC should never be divided in my name,” the 75-year-old head of state said in the statement. In an interview earlier in the day, he warned that infighting among leaders in the governing party could end in violence on the streets between ANC supporters who disagree with one another.
Many South Africans saw his departure as a fresh opportunity for the country to reclaim its status as a political and economic leader of sub-Saharan Africa. Already, Ramaphosa has presented himself on the global stage as someone ready to impose discipline on fraying government institutions.
Like Zuma, he is a member of the country’s anti-apartheid elite. But while Zuma boasted of his lack of formal education and lived publicly as a polygamist in keeping with Zulu tribal traditions, Ramaphosa enters office as one of the country’s wealthiest black business executives and one who once taught law at Stanford University as a visiting professor.
Ramaphosa will serve until 2019, when he is expected to lead the ANC’s campaign in — and most likely win — the next presidential election.
The damage Zuma infliction on the ANC will not be easy to undo. Even the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a nonprofit entity that promotes the vision of the anti-apartheid leader, condemned Zuma’s presidency, asking him in harsh terms to step aside.
In a statement this month, the foundation said, “Systematic looting by patronage networks linked to President Zuma have betrayed the country Nelson Mandela dreamed of.”
Zuma was South Africa’s fourth president since the end of apartheid, the harsh racial-segregation policy that denied rights to the black majority. Born poor, Zuma taught himself to read and write and joined the anti-apartheid ANC as a teenager.
He became a member of its armed wing in 1962 and was among dozens of activists convicted of trying to overthrow the white-minority government. He served 10 years in the infamous Robben Island prison with Mandela and other ANC leaders.
As president, Zuma survived eight parliamentary no-confidence motions and was facing another when he stepped down. He was caught up in numerous corruption scandals and was accused in 2005 of raping a family friend who was HIV-positive. He eventually was acquitted of that charge but stunned South Africans by explaining that he had showered after sex to reduce the risk of contracting HIV.
Later in his presidency, he faced an onslaught of criticism for using government funds to renovate his private home. He was ordered to repay more than $500,000 in that case. He formed a close relationship with the powerful Gupta brothers, businessmen who were said to control the levers of the state. His erratic economic policies led to a dramatic decline in the value of the country’s currency, the rand.
“There has been a broad culture in the ANC that was conducive to shady deals and personal enrichment. But Jacob Zuma really took that culture to new extremes, and in the process I think he did irreparable harm to the ANC,” said Susan Booysen, a professor at Wits University in Johannesburg who has written extensively about the ANC.
Throughout his presidency, Zuma suggested that opposition to his leadership was racially motivated, even though more and more black South Africans joined calls for his resignation.
What kept Zuma afloat was partially his popularity in his native province of KwaZulu-Natal, where rural ANC supporters were willing to overlook the scandals that had sparked outrage in South Africa’s urban centers. The more-urbane Ramaphosa will have to win over that rural constituency, along with those who defected from the party in recent years.
As his support waned, Zuma tried to shield himself from criticism by drawing on his connection to Mandela and the liberation struggle. To some South Africans, that strategy echoed the tactic that neighboring Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe had used in a bid to shore up support for his collapsing presidency — revisiting his own revolutionary bona fides.
When Mugabe was forced out of power in a coup in November, South Africa’s popular News24 website ran a column with the headline: “Mugabe goes — is Zuma next?”