In a subdued television address on Sunday night, ousted South African President Thabo Mbeki announced that he had submitted his letter of resignation to the speaker of parliament and will officially leave office once parliament chooses an interim successor, as it is expected to do within a month. Mbeki appeared calm and dignified as he defended his legacy of 14 years as the premier policy architect of a post-apartheid South African state, first as deputy president under Nelson Mandela from 1994 to 1999, then as head of state. But despite his demeanor, it was a bitter moment for a man who, as the son of ANC liberation hero Govan Mbeki, has often said that he was "born into the struggle."
In his address, Mbeki, 66, denied that he had used his political influence to pressure the prosecution of Jacob Zuma, his rival within the African National Congress (ANC), who is expected to run in and win presidential elections next year. It was that allegation that served as the political ammunition party leaders needed to oust Mbeki, though observers suggest they had a much broader list of complaints. "So much antagonism has built up towards him that people were determined not to let him go in any dignified way," author and ANC parliamentarian-turned-critic Andrew Feinstein told TIME. "That is related to the very autocratic and cut-throat policies that he introduced in his own presidency."
A lonely figure who lacks Zuma's common touch, Mbeki has proved to be an astute policy architect, but ultimately lost out in what many say essentially boils down to a bruising popularity contest between the two leaders. Mbeki fired Zuma, his then deputy, in 2005 amid a corruption scandal over shady arms procurement deals. But the President's political star has waned since last December, when a party leadership conference removed him as ANC leader and replaced him with Zuma.
This weekend, ANC heavyweights hastened to calm fears of instability in the wake of Mbeki's resignation. Members of cabinet had last week threatened to resign if Mbeki went, but after meeting with the ANC executive leadership over the weekend, most indicated that they would stay on, including highly respected Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. "Everything goes on as normal," his spokeswoman Thoraya Pandy told reporters.
But there is no question that Mbeki's departure is the end of an era, leaving deep uncertainties about the country's future direction. Some analysts say that the market-friendly policies that have been Mbeki's hallmark are likely to continue. Zuma flew around the world earlier this year reassuring industrial leaders with interests in South Africa that he would follow in Mbeki's footsteps. But it was Zuma's support base a coalition of leftists, populists, trade unionists and radicals that drove the campaign to oust Mbeki, apparently against Zuma's wishes. That raises questions of just how firmly he calls the shots within his own party. "It suggests that the people who are in control of the ANC now are not what I would describe as a particularly reliable bunch of people," says Feinstein. "It seems Zuma is not going to be able to control them."
Zuma is notorious for telling supporters of different political stripes what he thinks they want to hear, often contradicting himself in the process. He's keenly aware that alienating his own support base could prove dangerous. One of Mbeki's greatest perceived failings has been his lack of sympathy with the poor. The overall economy grew robustly under his presidency, but his effort to increase black ownership in the economy became controversial as a politically connected few amass great riches while millions of ordinary citizens remain mired in poverty. Poor South Africans vented their rage earlier this year by staging violent pogroms against impoverished immigrants from elsewhere in Africa, who compete with them for low-wage jobs. If Zuma, seen as a man of the people, fails to produce housing and jobs more quickly than his predecessor has, he could face the wrath of the masses and his own party supporters.
At the same time, analysts said that Mbeki's departure increases the likelihood of a split within the ANC, as staunch Mbeki allies consider forming their own breakaway political party. Despite his apparent unpopularity, Mbeki had 40% of the party behind him last December.
Mbeki's departure could not have come at a worse time for South Africa's northern neighbor, Zimbabwe, where the South African President painstakingly brokered a power-sharing compromise aimed at ending the country's prolonged political crisis. Signed a week ago by Zimbabwe's autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, and his bitter enemy, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the deal has been hanging by a thread. If it holds, the Zimbabwe deal could be Mbeki's most enduring legacy, despite the criticism he has drawn for a policy of "silent diplomacy" that was seen by many to appease Mugabe. But it could also be his final defeat. The ANC says it wants Mbeki to continue his work mediating the conflict. With his authority now undermined, that will be no mean feat. Mugabe may well see Mbeki's weakness as an opportunity to squirm out of a deal he never wanted in the first place.