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Defiant Jacob Zuma resigns presidency as political crisis grips South Africa

South Africa’s Jacob Zuma arrives to speak at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, where he resigned as president on Feb. 14, 2018.

Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

Less than 24 hours before a planned parliamentary vote to fire him, president Jacob Zuma has bowed to intense pressure from his own ruling party and announced his resignation in a late-night speech to the country.

It was an ignominious end to one of the stormiest and most controversial political careers in postapartheid history. And it was the culmination of a dramatic day of surprises in South Africa, beginning with a dawn police raid on wealthy associates of Mr. Zuma's family, who are facing corruption charges.

His resignation is a stunning victory for his rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, the leader of the ruling African National Congress, who now becomes the acting president and is expected to be confirmed as president in a vote by Parliament on Thursday.

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Mr. Zuma addressed the country in a late-night speech after a day of defying the orders of the ANC, which had instructed him to resign.

Mr. Zuma entered office in 2009 as a popular ANC veteran and former anti-apartheid fighter who was praised as a simple man with a common touch. By his ninth year in office, his approval rating had plummeted, he was tangled in corruption scandals, and he had brought the ANC into shocking defeats in some of South Africa's biggest cities.

Announcing his resignation, Mr. Zuma said he had to respect the wishes of Parliament. He said he was worried about the tensions within the ANC between his supporters and opponents. "No life should be lost in my name," he said in his televised speech.

"The ANC should never be divided in my name," he said. "I have therefore come to the decision to resign as President of the Republic with immediate effect, even though I disagree with the decision of the leadership of my organization."

Much of his speech was devoted to declarations of respect for the South African Constitution and parliamentary system – although the country's highest court has concluded that he violated the Constitution in his handling of a scandal over the use of state funds in his private home.

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"I fear no motion of no-confidence or impeachment, for they are the lawful mechanisms for the people of this beautiful country to remove their president," Mr. Zuma said.

Earlier in the day, an elite police unit launched a raid on the Johannesburg villa of the powerful Gupta brothers, business partners of Mr. Zuma's son. The Guptas were at the heart of the country's biggest corruption scandal, accused of wielding influence over Mr. Zuma for their own personal profit. One of the Gupta brothers was reportedly arrested in the police raid, along with other Gupta associates and government officials.

Mr. Zuma, in an angry and rambling interview on the state broadcaster before his resignation, warned that the ANC's decision to order him from office could provoke "violence" among its members. He complained that he was being "victimized" by an "unfair" decision by his own party comrades.

"This is something they are going to regret," he said. "Some people are not going to like it. It's going to cause bigger problems. … We're being plunged into a crisis that I'm sure my comrades will regret."

Mr. Zuma's defiance had escalated the political crisis that has left the South African government in disarray. In his interview, he appeared to be confirming the fears of many South African politicians, who have worried that Mr. Zuma could encourage his followers to take to the streets in protest or violence.

He said the ANC had failed to give any reasons for its decision. "There is no evidence, nobody has said I've done something wrong. I don't understand. I don't think it is fair. … This has been done in a manner where I'm being victimized here."

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His refusal to resign on Wednesday morning soon triggered a rapid move to force him out of office with a vote in South Africa's Parliament. The ANC and all major opposition parties announced they would support a motion of no-confidence on Thursday at 2 p.m. local time, essentially ensuring Mr. Zuma's departure.

The vote would have immediately removed him from office. Under the plan agreed to by all parties, Parliament would then choose a new president on Friday morning.

Several opposition parties said they would have preferred to impeach Mr. Zuma, which would have stripped him of his salary and benefits. But Parliament is currently revising its impeachment rules in a court-ordered process, so the parties were planning to use the no-confidence process, which requires only a simple majority to pass.

After postponing much of Parliament's work for the past 10 days while the Zuma saga unfolded, the ANC is now anxious to catch up on the delayed work. "Everything has almost come to a standstill, so we need to move," said Paul Mashatile, a senior ANC official. "We don't have time to be bickering over who should be president."

The ANC had expected Mr. Zuma to address South Africans on Wednesday morning in response to its decision on Tuesday to order him to resign. But after briefly scheduling a media appearance, Mr. Zuma cancelled the appearance and disappeared from view until his television interview later in the day.

The ANC had wanted Mr. Zuma to make way for its newly elected leader, Mr. Ramaphosa, who won an ANC conference vote in December after campaigning on an anti-corruption promise.

Meanwhile, the long-simmering corruption scandal that has surrounded Mr. Zuma is finally leading to arrests.

Shortly after dawn on Wednesday morning, an elite police unit raided the luxurious Johannesburg villa of the Gupta brothers, the wealthy business partners of Mr. Zuma's son, Duduzane. They said the raid was part of an investigation into an allegedly corrupt farm project. The project was a criminal scheme that diverted millions of dollars of government money into Gupta bank accounts, prosecutors say.

Heavily armed tactical police blocked the street leading to the Gupta villa, telling reporters that it was a "crime scene."

The elite unit, known as the Hawks, later announced they had arrested three suspects. Two other suspects had agreed to hand themselves over, they said in a statement.

One of the Gupta brothers, Ajay Gupta, and a Gupta business associate were among those detained for questioning, local media reports said. One report said Duduzane Zuma could be among those targeted in the arrests, with a total of 15 suspects on the arrest list. A former senior official of Free State province, where the farm project was located, were also among those arrested on Wednesday.

The Hawks said they were making arrests in several locations in an investigation into "state capture" – the common term here for widespread corruption in which Gupta business interests have allegedly captured state agencies for their own profit.

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