Zuma ally resigns after anti-graft protests in South African province

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The leader of South Africa’s North West province resigned on Wednesday in the face of pressure from President Cyril Ramaphosa and weeks of violent protests against his rule over the platinum-rich region.

The pressure on Supra Mahumapelo is evidence of Ramaphosa’s drive to root out graft since he replaced former president Jacob Zuma in February. Ramaphosa met Mahumapelo, who is an ally of Zuma, to try to persuade him to step down.

Protesters took to the streets of the province’s capital Mahikeng in April demanding Mahumapelo’s resignation and accusing him of mishandling state tenders and overseeing the collapse of the local health system.

Mahumapelo initially refused to step down, saying he was being unfairly targeted for supporting Zuma’s ex-wife in the closely fought race for leader of the African National Congress (ANC) won by Ramaphosa in December.

The length of the tussle over Mahumapelo’s tenure shows Ramaphosa’s cautious leadership style and the power that Zuma loyalists retain within the ANC, which is Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

Mahumapelo denies wrongdoing and said he yielded to pressure to resign to dispel fears that he could influence dozens of investigations into mismanagement in the province.

“I think it will be better for one to go on early retirement,” Mahumapelo told a news conference at the ANC’s headquarters in downtown Johannesburg.

He has led North West since 2014 and defended his record on the region’s economy, which he said was growing at over 2 percent. He accused “counter-revolutionaries” of stirring up public anger against his rule.

ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule, one of the party’s top six most powerful officials who is also seen as being close to Zuma, told the same news conference that the ruling party supported Mahumapelo’s resignation.

Ramaphosa placed the North West under central government control earlier this month and deployed army medics to hospitals to treat patients after cutting short a visit to a Commonwealth summit in Britain to travel to the province.

Police last month fired tear gas at protesters who blocked roads, set alight cars and looted shops in and around Mahikeng.

Jessie Duarte, ANC Deputy Secretary General, said the national government would remain in control of the North West while it got to the bottom of the problems there.

She said the ANC was united behind Ramaphosa and dismissed talk of a lingering struggle for control of the party between rival factions.

“We have to move forward,” Duarte said. “For the next five years this is the leadership of the ANC led by President Cyril Ramaphosa.”

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg