President Thabo Mbeki fired his deputy and heir apparent Tuesday after he was implicated in a corruption scandal, throwing open the question of who will become the next leader of South Africa.
Jacob Zuma, 63, who enjoyed widespread support among the population and the labor union movement, had been groomed to take the helm of Africa's economic and diplomatic powerhouse when Mbeki steps down in 2009.
But Mbeki told a special joint session of Parliament that because of a high court judge's ruling that Zuma had a "generally corrupt" relationship with his financial adviser, he was being dismissed from his post and from the cabinet.
"In the interest of the honorable deputy president, the government, our young democratic system and our country, it would be best to release the honorable Jacob Zuma from his responsibilities," Mbeki said.
Zuma said he accepted his dismissal, but maintained he had done nothing wrong.
"All of us should put national unity above everything else," he told reporters. "Our freedom and democracy are more important than us as individuals."
Youthful Zuma supporters stopped traffic in downtown Durban in a demonstration of their loyalty to him. The Congress of South African Trade Unions said it was "devastated."
Zuma's longtime adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced June 8 to 15 years in prison for corruption and fraud. The court found that Shaik made payments to Zuma totaling $178,000 to fund a lavish lifestyle, in violation of anti-corruption legislation. It also said Zuma was aware of his friend's efforts to secure him bribes from a French arms dealer.
No charges have been brought against Zuma.
Former president Nelson Mandela said he was "deeply saddened" by the news but supported Mbeki's decision. Opposition leaders praised Mbeki's decision.
"We have shown the world that South Africa is not among those nations who allow corruption to unravel the fabric of their country's soul," said Tony Leon, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance.
Mbeki did not immediately announce a new deputy president. Local news media speculated that the national chairman of the African National Congress, Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, was the top contender.
Zuma, a former guerrilla fighter who was imprisoned for 10 years during the apartheid era, remains hugely popular within the ANC and its allies.