Down but not out -- yet: South Africa's embattled President Jacob Zuma has rejected a party request that he resign

Johannesburg (AFP) - South Africa’s ruling ANC party on Tuesday “recalled” scandal-tainted President Jacob Zuma from office but set no deadline for him to step down, pitching the country into further uncertainty.

ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule told reporters that Zuma had “agreed in principle to resign” and had proposed leaving in three to six months – a delay that the party rejected.

Magashule said there was no date for Zuma to stand down, and added that there would be “continuing interaction” between ANC officials and Zuma.

“The NEC (National Executive Committee) decided… to recall its deployee Jacob Zuma,” Magashule told reporters, saying the move “was taken only after exhaustive discussion on the impact such a recall would have on the country”.

The African National Congress party can “recall” the head of state, but the process is a party-level instruction and Zuma is under no constitutional obligation to obey.

Zuma is expected to respond to the recall on Wednesday, and could be ousted in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence if he clings to office.

Jacob Zuma's presidency has been marred by corruption scandals, slow economic growth and record unemployment that have fuelled public anger

A cabinet meeting scheduled for Wednesday was postponed indefinitely, the government said in a statement, effectively clearing Zuma’s diary for the day.

The power struggle over Zuma’s departure has put him at loggerheads with Cyril Ramaphosa, his expected successor, who is the new head of the African National Congress (ANC).

- Who’s in charge? -

The ANC’s leadership committee met for 13 hours at a hotel outside Pretoria, and decided in the early hours of Tuesday to “recall” Zuma from his post.

A committee member confirmed to AFP that the president had asked for three more months in office.

Local media reported that Zuma is seeking to have his potentially ruinous legal fees from prolonged court battles against multiple criminal charges indemnified.

One case relates to 783 payments he allegedly received linked to an arms deal before he came to power.

He is also reportedly seeking legal protection for his family and other associates involved in controversial deals.

Ben Payton of the London-based Maplecroft risk consultancy said the recall was “a political death sentence” for the president.

The power struggle over the departure of Zuma, left, has put him at loggerheads with Cyril Ramaphosa, his expected successor

“If Ramaphosa had agreed to help protect Zuma from prosecution in any way, his leadership would have been tainted – perhaps fatally,” he added.

The impasse has plunged South Africa – the continent’s most developed economy – into confusion over who is running the country, with major national events cancelled amid the uncertainty.

“We know you want this matter to be finalised,” Ramaphosa, 65, told a party rally in Cape Town on Sunday.

South African opposition parties have called for early elections as the ANC’s slow-motion transfer of power to Ramaphosa grinds on.

An opposition request for a no-confidence vote against Zuma, 75, this week was still being considered by the parliamentary speaker.

The radical Economic Freedom Fighters has threatened to sue the speaker unless she approves and brings forward their proposed motion of no confidence.

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party called the recall an “internal ANC resolution, nothing more”.

South Africa is the continent's most developed economy

“Unless Zuma tenders his resignation, this recall is not worth the paper it is printed on,” he wrote on his verified Twitter account.

Zuma’s presidency has been marred by corruption scandals, slow economic growth and record unemployment that have fuelled public anger.

He was scheduled to stand down next year after serving the maximum two terms after coming to power in 2009.

- Mandela’s party -

In 2008, Zuma’s supporters pushed out then-president Thabo Mbeki via a similar “recall” over allegations of abuse of power.

In local polls in 2016, the ANC recorded its worst electoral result since coming to power in 1994 with Nelson Mandela at the helm as white-minority rule fell.

Ramaphosa, the deputy president, must revive the economy and crack down on what he has admitted is rampant government corruption if he is to boost the party’s tarnished reputation before an uphill election battle next year.

He is a former trade unionist and Mandela ally who led talks to end apartheid in the early 1990s and then became a multi-millionaire businessman before returning to politics.

Zuma’s hold over the ANC was shaken in December when his chosen successor – his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – narrowly lost to Ramaphosa in a vote to be the new party leader.

The ANC has insisted there will be no delay to the budget speech, which is due on February 21.