JOHANNESBURG — Top leaders of South Africa’s governing party ordered President Jacob Zuma to step down on Tuesday, saying that his continued presence was eroding the “renewed hope” felt since the election of new party leaders in December.
Ace Magashule, secretary general of the African National Congress, said that the party had not given Mr. Zuma a deadline to respond, but added that he was certain that the president would deliver a reply the next day.
“Let’s leave it to President Jacob Zuma,” Mr. Magashule said at a news conference at party headquarters in Johannesburg.
In a meeting with party leaders Monday night, Mr. Zuma was defiant, insisting that he had done nothing wrong and refusing to resign, according to the local news media.
The extraordinary confrontation between Mr. Zuma and the A.N.C., the party that until recently had backed him throughout a scandal-plagued presidency, heightened a power struggle over the past week that has paralyzed South Africa, which has the continent’s most powerful economy.
The drawn-out negotiations over Mr. Zuma’s future have cast a pall over the optimism that followed Cyril Ramaphosa’s election in December to succeed him as leader of the A.N.C. Although Mr. Ramaphosa, deputy president since 2014, has a mixed record in both politics and business, he has spoken forcefully against corruption and is allied with A.N.C. officials with reputations as reformers.
Mr. Magashule said that Mr. Zuma had asked to serve for an additional three to six months before stepping down. But Mr. Magashule said that party leaders rejected the request, saying, “the period is too long.’’
Officials pushing for Mr. Zuma’s early exit had argued that the longer he stayed in power, the harder it would be for Mr. Ramaphosa to rebuild the A.N.C. before national elections in 2019.
Mr. Magashule said that the uncertainty over the presidency would “erode the renewed hope and confidence among South Africans” since the party elections in December.
Mr. Magashule, a longtime ally of Mr. Zuma, dismissed suggestions that the party’s move had also been influenced by corruption charges and inquiries that the president is facing.
“President Zuma has not been found guilty by any court of law,’’ Mr. Magashule said. “And when we took these decisions, we did not take these decisions because Comrade Jacob Zuma has done anything wrong.”
The A.N.C.’s decision to dismiss Mr. Zuma was the culmination of a week of high-level party meetings and direct talks that failed to resolve an impasse between Mr. Zuma and Mr. Ramaphosa. Seeking to avoid a confrontation that could deepen a party split, Mr. Ramaphosa had pressed Mr. Zuma to resign voluntarily.
Under the Constitution, Parliament selects the president, effectively putting the decision in the hands of the A.N.C.’s top leaders.
If Mr. Zuma rejects their order to step down, the party could try to remove him through a vote of no confidence in Parliament — an option that A.N.C. leaders want to avoid, as it could deepen party divisions and keep public attention focused on Mr. Zuma. Mr. Magashule said on Tuesday that the A.N.C. had no immediate plans to put forward a motion against Mr. Zuma.
A vote of no confidence was already scheduled for Feb. 22, however, and opposition parties are demanding that it be moved up to this week, putting the governing party in an awkward position. A.N.C. lawmakers would have to work with the opposition, which could then claim credit for removing the president. Or they could choose to vote against the opposition-led motion and put forward their own, prolonging the crisis.
The A.N.C.’s leaders hammered out their position in a marathon meeting of the party’s national executive committee at a hotel in Pretoria, the capital, which started Monday afternoon and lasted into Tuesday’s predawn hours.
Around midnight, Mr. Ramaphosa’s motorcade was seen making its way to Mr. Zuma’s residence, where Mr. Ramaphosa directly asked for the president’s resignation.
Mr. Magashule, who accompanied Mr. Ramaphosa, said that Mr. Zuma pleaded again for more time.
“Our discussions were very cordial,’’ Mr. Magashule said.
After the president refused to step down, Mr. Ramaphosa’s motorcade returned to the hotel where, in a tense meeting over the next few hours, Mr. Ramaphosa pushed members of the executive committee to formally demand that the president step down.
The developments amounted to a setback for Mr. Ramaphosa, who had confidently told South Africans, who are increasingly weary of the continuing power struggle, that Mr. Zuma’s future would be finalized during the meeting on Monday.
The situation appeared to be moving in Mr. Ramaphosa’s direction last week. A scheduled executive committee meeting was suddenly canceled after he began direct talks with Mr. Zuma, which he had optimistically described as “constructive.” But despite Mr. Ramaphosa’s reputation as a skilled negotiator, the talks ultimately proved unfruitful.
At the A.N.C. elective conference in December, Mr. Ramaphosa’s margin of victory over Mr. Zuma’s chosen successor was slim, indicating the deep party split and presaging the difficulties he would face in pressing Mr. Zuma to step down as the nation’s leader before his term expires in mid-2019.