CAPE TOWN — South Africa’s embattled president, Jacob Zuma, resigned on Wednesday, putting an end to a period of scandal and mismanagement that threatened to destroy the party of Nelson Mandela.
Zuma’s resignation leaves his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, as the country’s acting leader, a man now charged with salvaging the legacy of Africa’s most famous liberation movement.
Zuma was once revered as a hero of that movement, who served as a political prisoner alongside Mandela in his youth. But Zuma’s nine years in power, marred by a string of corruption allegations, drove even party loyalists away from the once seemingly indefatigable African National Congress.
But to many, the most destructive aspect of Zuma’s legacy was his failure to deliver on the promises of post-apartheid South Africa. Twenty-four years after Mandela rose to power, promising a rainbow nation of shared prosperity, South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal countries, with many blacks living in conditions much like those they endured under the white nationalist government.
Under intense pressure from the ruling African National Congress party, Zuma said his decision was spurred by altercations that had taken place outside the party headquarters in Johannesburg in recent days.
‘‘No life should be lost in my name, and also the ANC should never be divided in my name,’’ the 75-year-old head of state said in a televised statement.
‘‘I have therefore come to the decision to resign as president of the republic with immediate effect, even though I disagree with the leadership of my organization,’’ he said. ‘‘I have always been a disciplined member of the ANC.’’
The resignation came one day after ANC ordered him to step down or face a vote of no confidence in Parliament. It ends a long week of limbo for many South Africans as the ANC has tried to persuade Zuma to resign and renew South Africans’ faith in the party.
Zuma was South Africa’s fourth president since the end of apartheid, the racial-segregation policy that stripped rights from the black majority. Born poor, Zuma taught himself to read and write and joined the anti-apartheid ANC at age 17.
He eventually became a member of its armed wing in 1962 and was part of a group of dozens of activists convicted of trying to overthrow the white-minority government. He served 10 years in prison with Mandela.
To his critics, the president’s early departure — his term was not up until next year — marks the end of a frustrating era in which the nation drifted and Zuma’s name became nearly synonymous with the use of the public office for personal gain.
Many South Africans hope Ramaphosa, should South Africa’s Parliament elect him as the next president this week, as expected, will put South Africa on a new path, taking on corruption and restoring the reputation of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.
In his statement, Zuma reiterated comments he made earlier in the day in a televised interview that he did not agree with his party’s decision to order him out of office, nor had he been told why he had to leave.
‘‘I do not fear exiting political office,’’ he said. ‘‘However I have only asked my party to articulate my transgressions and the reason for its immediate instruction that I vacate office.’’
ANC officials have been reticent about why he should resign, an apparent reluctance to broach numerous corruption scandals.
Zuma said repeatedly he disagreed with his party’s decision to order him out of office, saying it was not in keeping with party tradition. He warned that infighting in the party could end in violence on the streets. ‘‘I think we are being plunged in a crisis that I’m sure my comrades, my leaders will regret. Some people may not like this, may feel something is wrong.’’
The stunning standoff between Zuma and his party was the culmination of a long-simmering battle over the leader’s future after nearly a decade in power. Increasingly, Zuma has been pummeled by graft scandals and complaints about the government’s inability to turn around a sagging economy.