President Thabo Mbeki bowed to heavy pressure from his party to resign Saturday, tossed to the sidelines of the economic powerhouse he built 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 the 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.
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, denied that but gave in to the demands Saturday.
ANC 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.
Mbeke'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.”
Saturday's events bring to a close a nine-year presidency during which Mbeki brought a moribund economy back from its deathbed. But whatever those gains, they moved too sluggishly to lift up most of those in need. Unemployment, variously estimated at between 25 percent and 40 percent, has remained a manacle on the millions of South Africans living in the shanties.
At the same time, Mbeki became internationally notorious for his views about AIDS, joining maverick scientists in questioning whether a virus was the cause of the illness. He led the resistance to antiretroviral treatment, acting as if the AIDS epidemic were a defamatory plot against Africans and a con job by avaricious pharmaceutical companies. This intransigence, critics say, sent countless thousands to a needless death. The New York Times contributed.