South African President Thabo Mbeki has fired his deputy, Jacob Zuma. The development follows a conviction in a trial in which the judge described the relationship between the accused and Mr. Zuma as generally corrupt.
Mr. Mbeki said that Mr. Zuma has not been charged or convicted of any crime, but that the court had raised important questions of conduct inconsistent with Mr. Zuma's position as deputy president.
"However as president of the republic, I have come to the conclusion that the circumstances dictate that in the interest the honorable deputy president, the government, our young democratic system, and our country," said Mbeki. "it would be best to release honorable Jacob Zuma from his responsibilities as deputy president of the Republic and member of the cabinet."
Mr. Mbeki's decision follows the conviction earlier this month, on charges of corruption and fraud, of Schabir Schaik, Mr. Zuma's self-proclaimed financial advisor. In judgment many observers have described as careful and meticulous, Judge Hilary Squires ruled that the relationship between Schaik and Mr. Zuma was generally corrupt.
The judgment unleashed a storm of publicity and controversy. Much of it was due to perceptions in some quarters that Mr. Zuma, who is very popular in the ruling African National Congress and beyond, was elbowed out of a favored position to take over the reins of government from Mr. Mbeki in four years.
But Steven Friedman, of the Center for Policy Studies, said that the reasons go deeper. "Well, this is entirely unprecedented - we have never had a situation in this country, ever, in which somebody of the seniority in government of Mr. Zuma has been accused of corruption by a judge," said Mr. Freidman. "It is a great test for the new constitutional system, you are dealing with methods of accountability to the judiciary, to the society which we have never experienced before, and it could lead to political consequences for the deputy president of the country. So it is not all that surprising that it is attracting the attention that it is."
Mr. Mbeki too noted that he had no precedent to guide him in his decision, adding that he hoped his choice would ultimately benefit the country. "I trust that what we have done today, and will do in future together, will continue to strengthen our democracy, reinforce accountability of those who hold public office; and, deepen the confidence of the masses of our people in their representatives and our organs of state." He said.
The National Prosecuting Authority has yet to announce whether or not Mr. Zuma will be charged in the wake of Schaik's conviction.
Mr. Mbeki hinted at that possibility by saying that another reason for his decision is that it is his duty to ensure that members of the executive branch are able to carry out their duties unencumbered by distractions.
Mr. Mbeki's decision has already been widely welcomed by opposition parties and independent observers, with many saying Mr. Mbeki had acted correctly and courageously. But it remains unclear how his decision will be received over the long term by the rank and file of his own party and its affiliates.
In a statement read soon after he was fired, Mr. Zuma indicated he will remain on as deputy president of the African National Congress. Mr. Mbeki said he will announce changes to the national executive in due course.