Leading article: Mr Mbeki's timely exit

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Jumping (just) before you are pushed has become something of an international trend recently, what with the departure of President Musharraf in Pakistan and the resignations of prime ministers in Japan, Thailand and Israel. Yet none of these farewells was perhaps as overdue, but also as fraught with risk, as that of President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa.

Mr Mbeki, it has regrettably to be said, had increasingly become a disappointment. When he succeeded Nelson Mandela, hopes inside and outside the country were exceptionally high. Mr Mbeki was hailed as an effective economic manager who would continue what Mr Mandela had so inspirationally begun, while getting down to the hard work needed to raise living standards and meet sky-rocketing public expectations.

Leading South Africa at this stage was always going to be more difficult than Nelson Mandela, with his unique personal history and charisma, had made it look. But Mr Mbeki found it hard to capitalise on that legacy. Impressive economic growth was sustained and the ranks of the black middle-class swelled, but the townships remained deprived, unemployment rose and inequalities sharpened. This, and South Africa's troubled neighbourhood, contributed to the eruption of ethnic violence last year.

But Mr Mbeki was also the author of some of his own misfortunes. His rejectionist position on the cause of Aids obstructed help that his fellow countrymen desperately needed. And while he might indeed have been the only intermediary to whom Zimbabwe's President Mugabe would listen, an earlier readiness to intervene might have saved suffering and lives. And he leaves South African politics, as he found it, essentially a one-party state.

Mr Mbeki's enforced resignation speaks of character flaws, bitter rivalries and the viper's nest of ANC politics. Jacob Zuma, who ousted Mr Mbeki as ANC leader is – rightly – not taking his elevation for granted and his economic populism might not be the best course for South Africa. But a prolonged interregnum could be worse, with all the uncertainty that would attend it. In such circumstances, an early election might be preferable.