JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma didn't name an interim president for South Africa as everyone expected him to do Monday, but his impish chuckle at a news conference told reporters everything they needed to know.
The charismatic, confident Zuma is in charge of South Africa now — and it doesn't really matter who warms the seat at the presidency until he can officially take over.
His path was eased over the weekend when longtime rival President Thabo Mbeki bowed to demands from his own ruling ANC party that he surrender power. Mbeki remains president until parliament names an interim successor, likely later this week.
Zuma still needs to win elections next year — and put a corruption scandal behind him — before he can claim the actual title of president.
In Parliament on Monday, the ANC chief whip said Mbeki's last day will be Thursday. Chief whip Nathi Mthetwa did not name the ANC's choice for interim president, but Zuma indicated the party favors its deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, a sober technocrat who is close to Zuma.
Much has been made of the contrast in style between Zuma and Mbeki, who was more likely to greet questions he didn't want to answer with a cool stare. Zuma merely chuckled when reporters pressed him to name the ANC's candidate for interim president, saying that was a matter for parliament.
He sounded tougher, though, when asked whether corruption accusations he has so far beat on technical grounds could make him ineligible for the presidency.
"Allegations are not conviction," he said. "People are innocent until found guilty."
Mbeki, meanwhile, spent the day saying goodbye. His office said he met with police, military and prison officials Monday to thank them for their work. The night before, he delivered a sober, nationally broadcast farewell address.
Zuma devoted much of Monday's news conference to praising Mbeki for overseeing economic growth and putting South African diplomacy on the world stage. He also tried to play down speculation about his rivalry with his one-time mentor.
"Comrade Mbeki remains a comrade," Zuma said. "In fact, more than a comrade — a friend, a brother."
Mbeki, 66, was pressured to quit after a judge threw out a corruption case against Zuma earlier this month on a legal technicality and implied that Mbeki had applied pressure to ensure Zuma was prosecuted in an attempt to derail his political ambitions.
In a televised farewell address Sunday night, Mbeki said "categorically" that he had never interfered in the work of prosecutors — especially in "the painful matter" of the Zuma arms deal case.
Zuma said Mbeki was asked to resign to allay public concern about divisions within the governing party.
"The country needs a strong and united ruling party at the helm of government, capable of galvanizing support for the government's development agenda," he explained.
Mbeki had been accused of pursuing economic growth without paying enough attention to lifting South Africans out of poverty. Zuma said Monday that ensuring growth was crucial, but so was providing education, developing job skills and ensuring blacks had access to land.
It's the kind of talk likely to make business jittery about Zuma, already seen as owing his rise to support from labor and the South African Communist Party.
The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions said Monday Mbeki's departure would allow the country to "focus on the real debates we should be having on addressing unemployment, poverty and growing inequalities."
Still, South Africa's financial markets appeared to accept the leadership change calmly Monday, with none of the turmoil that some had feared.
"No one's really panicky," said Gideon Muller, a trader at Thebe Securities in Johannesburg. "Everyone had actually expected this."
The South African Press Association quoted Rand Merchant Bank's John Cairns as saying that while South African business was unsurprised by the political developments, foreign investors may be concerned.
Cairns said investors should be heartened by news that Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, credited along with Mbeki with guiding South Africa's growth, would remain in his post.
The minister of science and technology, Mosibudi Mangena, resigned Monday with his Azanian People's Organisation party, saying Mbeki's firing has left the country in a "state of uncertainty and confusion, thereby leading to a crisis in government".
Several ANC ministers also have threatened to quit, but Mbeki has so far refused to accept any resignations.
Business leader Neren Rau, however, told the Associated Press he was concerned that no successor was named immediately.
"The critical thing for us as a business organization is continuity in terms of leadership succession planning which, if drawn out too long, could adversely affect us in terms of investor and business confidence," said Rau, the chief executive officer of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The country's moral beacon, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said he was deeply disturbed by Mbeki's axing.
"The way of retribution leads to a banana republic," Tutu said Monday, voicing concern that the cloud of corruption still hangs over Zuma's head.