South African Leader Dismisses Top Deputy

President Thabo Mbeki (search) dismissed his deputy Tuesday after he was implicated in a corruption scandal, throwing wide open the question of who will become the next leader of South Africa (search).

Deputy President Jacob Zuma (search), who retains widespread support, had been groomed to take over from Mbeki at the helm of Africa's economic and diplomatic powerhouse when he stands down in 2009.

Mbeki noted that Zuma has not been charged, but he said a high court judge's ruling that he had a "generally corrupt" relationship with his financial adviser required the president to act.

"I have come to the conclusion that the circumstances dictate that 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 as deputy president of the republic and member of the Cabinet," Mbeki told a special joint session of Parliament.

Zuma's longtime friend and adviser, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced June 8 to 15 years in prison for corruption and fraud.

The high court in the eastern coastal city of Durban found that Shaik made payments to Zuma totaling $178,000 in violation of anti-corruption legislation to fund a lavish lifestyle.

Judge Hillary Squires said Zuma was also aware of his friend's efforts to secure him a $74,000 a year bribe from French arms trading company Thint Holdings — formerly Thomson CSF — to deflect corruption investigations related to a massive 1999 weapons deal.

The National Prosecuting Authority has said it is considering opening a new investigation against Zuma after dropped efforts to prosecute him in 2003, saying the case was "unwinnable."

Mbeki, who has repeatedly pledged to stamp out corruption, said he continued to hold Zuma in "high regard."

"We have worked together under difficult conditions for 30 years," Mbeki said. "I wish to thank him for the service he has rendered as part of the executive, at national and provincial levels, sparing neither strength nor effort to ensure that, with each passing day, we build a better life for all South Africans."