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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the National address at the Parliament in Cape Town, on Feb. 16, 2018.RUVAN BOSHOFF

More than two decades after Nelson Mandela inspired the world by helping liberate his country from apartheid, South Africa's vibrant young democracy is providing another lesson for the world: how citizens can rebel against an entrenched president and push him from office.

On Wednesday night, when Jacob Zuma grudgingly agreed to hand in his resignation more than a year ahead of schedule, it was a victory for grassroots activism. With their court battles and their relentless pressure on high-level corruption cases, citizen groups helped force the ruling party into an unexpectedly swift change of leadership.

"In my experience, civil society in South Africa is the strongest mobilized civil society I've ever seen in my adult life anywhere," says Stephen Lewis, co-founder of advocacy group AIDS-Free World and former United Nations special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa.

"I've never seen anything quite like it," he told The Globe and Mail in an interview in Johannesburg on Friday.

"Frankly, it supersedes anything I've seen in developed countries, Canada included."

As they watched Mr. Zuma be replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa in the South African presidency this week, activists suggested that the South African example of successful protest could be an influence on social change movements in many other countries.

"There are so many things that the rest of the world and the United States could learn from South Africa's democracy and civil society at this moment," said Patrick Gaspard, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and now the president of the Open Society Foundations, which supports democracy and human rights groups around the world.

"At a time when we're seeing in the United States that our institutions are a good deal more fragile than we had imagined, it's inspiring to see just how resilient South African institutions are and how strategic average citizens can be," Mr. Gaspard told The Globe.

"One of the deepest lessons that all civil society should draw from South Africa of the past few years is the example of stamina, resoluteness and a particular kind of stick-to-itiveness. … Jacob Zuma is leaving the presidency of South Africa as a consequence of the good health and vigour of South African democracy."

While the citizen opposition movement to U.S. President Donald Trump has flourished in the United States, it has sometimes "seemed to be distracted by the next tweet," Mr. Gaspard said. It could learn something from the laser-like focus and persistence of South Africa's citizen activism, he said.

South Africa was once a moral inspiration to the world. But that moment had seemed to be lost in the distant past – until now.

That time was in the mid-1990s. Nelson Mandela was president, the country was known as the "Rainbow Nation," its leaders were liberation heroes and its citizens were courageous rebels who had defeated the evil system of apartheid.

The heroic era soon faded away. Mr. Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, rejected the science on the HIV epidemic and delayed the introduction of life-saving medicine. His denialist policies caused an estimated 330,000 deaths, according to a Harvard University study.

Then came Mr. Zuma, whose nine-year rule was riddled with embarrassing scandals over corruption and illegality. By the time of his reluctant resignation on Wednesday night, the country's reputation was in tatters.

But by forcing his early resignation, South Africans may have restored their moral authority on the world stage. In their fearless resistance to the Zuma presidency, in their citizen revolt against corruption and cronyism, they are again becoming a beacon of hope for others.

To persuade the ruling African National Congress to turf out its own president before the end of his term, South Africa's vibrant civil society sector and opposition parties took to the streets – and to the courts.

They mobilized a series of mass demonstrations, including a national anti-Zuma rally with more than 60,000 marchers in major cities last year. But they also launched a tenacious campaign of court action to fight Mr. Zuma on a range of fronts.

They obtained high-level court decisions against Mr. Zuma on corruption cases, on a disastrously expensive nuclear energy plan, on media freedom and on other issues. And they used those cases to taint his legitimacy and galvanize popular action against him.

This intensifying pressure from civil society, combined with the devastating corruption revelations that were dug up by the country's independent media, finally forced the ANC to shorten Mr. Zuma's reign. He had expected to rule until the next national election in mid-2019. Instead, he was pushed into a hasty and undignified exit, just hours before Parliament planned to vote him out of office.

Activists in other countries are paying attention. Mr. Lewis believes they can learn from the "very careful formula" of South African civil society groups – a strategy that combines mass demonstrations with court challenges and detailed research to forge an effective campaign against government corruption and injustice.

The strategy worked. "Over time, the media joined in, the churches and unions joined in, and gradually the parliamentarians gained more confidence in breaking ranks and taking stands and having their voices heard, particularly in Zuma's downfall," Mr. Lewis said.

It's a formula that he has witnessed for nearly two decades in South Africa, going back to the fight against Mr. Mbeki's rejection of a mass program of antiretroviral medicine for people with HIV. A combination of street protests and judicial activism was the successful equation in that battle, too.

"South Africa has taught me that the courts are a tremendous vehicle to be used, that their decisions can animate and legitimize social movements and give them courage and strength," Mr. Lewis said. "This has been the focal point in South Africa. Does it have application elsewhere? I suspect it does."

In many other countries, in Africa and elsewhere, a powerful president such as Mr. Zuma would have entrenched his rule over time, slowly crushing all independent resistance. But in South Africa, it was the opposite. The longer that Mr. Zuma remained in power, the more the resistance grew deeper and more effective.

"The Zuma administration accomplished one very critical thing," said Natasha Marrian, political editor of South Africa's Business Day newspaper, in a column on Friday. "It mobilized citizens, churches, labour, opposition parties and civil society in an unprecedented way. Citizens did not just make their voices heard thought the ballot … but also through taking to the streets."

The citizen victory against Mr. Zuma had many elements. Investigative journalism was among the most crucial of those elements. Five years ago, a series of media reports revealed that an obscure farm project with government financing in Free State province was secretly linked to the Gupta brothers, the wealthy business partners of Mr. Zuma's son. Those reports eventually exposed a widening corruption scandal over the Gupta family's influence on the Zuma government – and that scandal, in turn, helped topple Mr. Zuma this week.

Just hours before Mr. Zuma resigned, police arrested five Gupta family members and Gupta associates on corruption charges in connection with that same Free State farm project.

Another element in the citizen campaign was the South African public service. Many courageous public servants stood up against corruption, becoming whistle-blowers who leaked key documents and other evidence to implicate Zuma government officials.

Another key factor was the South African constitution. Written in the Mandela era of the 1990s in negotiations led by Mr. Ramaphosa, with assistance from – among others – Canadian legal experts, the South African constitution is widely considered one of the most progressive in the world. Its provisions are what allowed civil society groups and opposition parties to launch their successful court challenges against the Zuma government.

South Africa's courts themselves are fiercely independent, filled with some of the country's brightest minds. In case after case, when civil society or opposition groups challenged the Zuma government, the courts issued eloquent and impeccable judgments that increasingly left Mr. Zuma isolated and badly weakened.

And then there were the South Africans themselves. In the streets, on social media and in citizen networks, they raised their voices against corruption and abuse. When the Guptas and Mr. Zuma's son hired the British publicity firm Bell Pottinger to lead a covert campaign to distract attention from the corruption issue, the campaign was exposed by leaked e-mails – which triggered a furious campaign against Bell Pottinger by South Africans on social media. The British firm was eventually forced out of business.

In his state-of-the-nation speech on Friday night, his first major speech as the country's new president, Mr. Ramaphosa promised to heed the South Africans who had spearheaded the movement against corruption.

"We are determined to build a society defined by decency and integrity that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources, nor the theft by corporate criminals of the hard-earned savings of ordinary people," he said.

And he paid tribute to the ordinary citizens who had pushed for social change.

“We are at a moment in the history of our nation when the people, through their determination, have started to turn the country around.”

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