JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — President Thabo Mbeki went on national television Sunday to announce his resignation and deny charges that he had pressured prosecutors to go after his bitter rival, Jacob Zuma, whose supporters had forced the South African leader from office.
Mbeki's departure leaves the ruling African National Congress bitterly divided, and many South Africans are puzzled by the action of Zuma's ANC supporters just seven months before the president's term was to end.
The country faces a period of economic and political instability, likely to be deepened if large numbers of Cabinet members quit in the coming days out of loyalty to Mbeki.
An interim president, probably National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, is expected to be named this week. Zuma, the ANC's leader, is likely to run for the office in elections scheduled for next year.
Mbeki, clad in a dark blue suit, looked solemn and dignified and avoided lashing out at his opponents in the ANC.
"I have been a loyal member of the ANC for 52 years. I remain a member and therefore respect its decisions," he said. "It is for this reason that I have taken the decision to resign as president of the republic, following the decision of the national executive committee of the ANC" on Saturday to "recall" him.
Mbeki's opponents gained the needed ammunition to drive him from office when a high court judge, Chris Nicholson, threw out fraud and racketeering charges against Zuma on Sept. 12, saying it appeared that he might have been the victim of a political conspiracy in the ANC.
The National Prosecuting Authority has said it would appeal the judge's ruling. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said Saturday that the party's ruling body decided to remove Mbeki because of concern over the motives behind the authority's appeal.
In his televised address to the nation, Mbeki strongly denied ever interfering with the prosecution or the judiciary.
"It's most unfortunate that gratuitous suggestions have been made, seeking to impugn the integrity of those of us who have been privileged to serve in our country's national executive," he said.
Mbeki said that even when he had strong views about judgments over the years, he was careful to avoid damaging the independence of the judiciary. He rejected the inference by the judge that he or the Cabinet had interfered in the judicial process.
"I would like to state this categorically -- that we have never done this and therefore never compromised the right of the National Prosecuting Authority to decide whom it intended to prosecute or not prosecute," Mbeki said. "This applies equally to the painful matter relating to the court proceedings against the president of the ANC, Comrade Jacob Zuma."
Mbeki dismissed Zuma as South Africa's deputy president in 2005 after Zuma's financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of soliciting a bribe from an arms company on Zuma's behalf.
The following year, Zuma was acquitted on rape charges.
With Zuma's prosecution on fraud and racketeering charges threatening to derail his bid to become South Africa's next president, his supporters campaigned for a political deal to have the charges set aside, arguing that investors were nervous about the political uncertainty created by the case.
But there was no longer a need for a deal after the high court decision, and Mbeki's enemies moved swiftly to depose him.
One key Zuma ally, ANC Treasurer Mathews Phosa, said on SABC television network Sunday evening that the party's national executive committee did not base its decision on the high court case but on Mbeki's record as president. He said he had received many messages saying "well done."
"We have a right to decide who should lead us from time to time," Phosa said.
Phosa said the party's key objective was to unite behind Zuma before next year's elections.