JOHANNESBURG, South Africa African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma didn't name an interim president for South Africa as everyone expected him to do Monday, but his impish chuckle at a news conference told reporters everything they needed to know.
The charismatic, confident Zuma is in charge of South Africa now and it doesn't really matter who warms the seat at the presidency until he can officially take over.
His path was eased over the weekend when longtime rival President Thabo Mbeki bowed to demands from his own ruling ANC party that he surrender power. Mbeki remains president until Parliament names an interim successor, likely later this week.
Zuma still needs to win elections next year and put a corruption scandal behind him before he can claim the actual title of president.
In Parliament on Monday, the ANC chief whip said Mbeki's last day will be Thursday. Chief whip Nathi Mthetwa did not name the ANC's choice for interim president, but Zuma indicated the party favors its deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, a sober technocrat who is close to Zuma.
Much has been made of the contrast in style between Zuma and Mbeki, who was more likely to greet questions he didn't want to answer with a cool stare. Zuma merely chuckled when reporters pressed him to name the ANC's candidate for interim president, saying that was a matter for Parliament.
He sounded tougher, though, when asked whether corruption accusations he has so far beat on technical grounds could make him ineligible for the presidency.
"Allegations are not conviction," he said. "People are innocent until found guilty."
Zuma devoted much of Monday's news conference to praising Mbeki for overseeing economic growth and putting South African diplomacy on the world stage. He also tried to play down speculation about his rivalry with his one-time mentor.
"Comrade Mbeki remains a comrade," Zuma said. "In fact, more than a comrade a friend, a brother."
Mbeki, 66, was forced to quit after a judge threw out a corruption case against Zuma earlier this month on a legal technicality and implied that Mbeki had applied pressure to ensure Zuma was prosecuted in an attempt to derail his political ambitions.
In a televised farewell address Sunday night, Mbeki said "categorically" that he had never interfered in the work of prosecutors especially in "the painful matter" of the Zuma arms deal case. Late Monday, the South African Press Association reported that Mbeki was joining prosecutors' appeal of the ruling, apparently in an attempt to address the allegations of interference.
Prosecutors said last week they were they appealing the ruling on the grounds that the judge's conclusion that they were required to consult Zuma before charging him was flawed. The prosecutors said they also wanted to address questions the judge had raised about how they operated.
Zuma said Mbeki was asked to resign to allay public concern about divisions within the governing party.
"The country needs a strong and united ruling party at the helm of government, capable of galvanizing support for the government's development agenda," he explained.
Mbeki had been accused of pursuing economic growth without paying enough attention to lifting South Africans out of poverty. Zuma said Monday that ensuring growth was crucial, but so was providing education, developing job skills and ensuring blacks had access to land.
It's the kind of talk likely to make business jittery about Zuma, already seen as owing his rise to support from labor and the South African Communist Party.
Still, South Africa's financial markets appeared to accept the leadership change calmly Monday, with none of the turmoil that some had feared.
The country's moral beacon, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said he was deeply disturbed by Mbeki's axing.
"The way of retribution leads to a banana republic," Tutu said Monday, voicing concern that the cloud of corruption still hangs over Zuma's head.
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Johannesburg and Clare Nullis in Cape Town contributed to this report.