South African President Jacob Zuma was presented with two options by his party Monday: Resign within 48 hours or face dismissal.
The ultimatum came at the end of a marathon meeting of the governing committee of the African National Congress, which has been locked in a bitter power struggle over Zuma's fate.
Zuma's term, which was due to end next year, has been tainted by corruption scandals and allegations that he allowed a powerful business family to gain sweeping influence over Cabinet appointments and contracts. His deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, and supporters, are determined to force Zuma from power, after talks in recent days to try to reach an exit deal for the president.
Ramaphosa won the leadership of the party — by a narrow margin — at a national conference of the ANC last year, putting him in a position to succeed Zuma after elections due next year. He and his supporters fear that unless Zuma is swiftly ousted, the party would struggle to rebuild its declining support before the elections.
The ANC's national executive committee, a body of 107 people that governs the party and has the power to "recall" or dismiss the president, met at a hotel near Pretoria on Monday. Under ANC traditions, a president is obliged to bow to the committee's decision, but some fear Zuma may defy the party and refuse to go.
He has clung doggedly to office in recent weeks despite his deputy's efforts to dislodge him and calls on him to resign by party leaders.
A move to force him out risks alienating sections of the deeply divided ANC, in the lead-up to elections.
Should Zuma defy the NEC and refuse to stand down, members of the party may vote against him in a vote of no confidence in parliament this month. With opposition support, this would likely see him toppled.
Under that scenario, the entire Cabinet would fall. The speaker, Baleka Mbete, would become acting president for a maximum of 30 days until the parliament voted in a new leader. Zuma has survived a succession of no confidence votes, including a vote last year that was a secret ballot, freeing ANC members of the obligation to vote on party lines. Since then, however, numbers in the ANC have turned against him.
In South Africa's political system, the president is not elected by the population, but by lawmakers from the majority party in the lower house of parliament.
In recent weeks, Ramaphosa's faction pressed for Zuma to go early — complaining there were two conflicting centers of power in the country and calling for his departure to provide "transition" and "closure." Civil society groups, anti-corruption organizations and the opposition party have also called for Zuma to be sacked, after damaging corruption scandals and allegations of financial mismanagement.
But when ANC leaders met with Zuma this month requesting he stand down to enable a "transition," he refused, telling them he did not know what they meant by the word.
Last week Ramaphosa tweeted that he was having constructive talks with Zuma. On the weekend, however, he hardened his line, saying that Monday's NEC meeting would finalize the matter.
"As the leadership of the African National Congress, we are currently engaged in discussions around the transition to a new administration and specifically to resolve the issues of the position of the president of the Republic. The NEC will be meeting tomorrow to discuss this very matter and because our people want this matter to be finalized, the NEC will be doing precisely that," Ramaphosa said at a speech in Cape Town on Sunday marking the 28th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Mandela went on to become the nation's first black president.
For Ramaphosa, Zuma's removal is a delicate operation, partly because Zuma still commands significant support, especially in his home province of Kwazulu-Natal. Zuma joined the ANC in 1959, headed the intelligence arm of the ANC's underground military wing and was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island for his activities.
Ramaphosa needs to unify the party, not alienate Zuma supporters or anger his allies. He has promised a sweeping crackdown on corruption.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has demanded any exit deal be made public and threatened to go to court to overturn any immunity offer.
9:07 p.m.: This article was updated with the news of the ultimatum presented to Zuma.