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Senior S.Africa ANC leader Magashule appears in court on graft charges

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A top official in South Africa’s governing African National Congress appeared in court on Friday on corruption charges, a case that has deepened divisions within a party whose rule has been unchallenged since the 1994 end of white-minority rule.

Ace Magashule, the secretary general of South Africa's ruling African National Congress gestures as he appears at the Bloemfontein high court in the Free State province, South Africa, November 13, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Ace Magashule, secretary-general of the ANC and among its most powerful leaders, arrived at the magistrates court in Bloemfontein on Friday morning to the cheers of thousands of supporters who denounced the trial as a witch hunt. They chanted, danced and waved banners reading “Hands off Comrade Magashule”, footage from national TV channels showed.

He is the most high-profile politician to be tried since former president Jacob Zuma, whose trial on graft charges resumes in December.

Some protesters tried to tear down a barbed wire cordon around the court while others burned yellow ANC T-shirts bearing President Cyril Ramaphosa’s face, calling on him to step down. Magashule had handed himself into the police that morning.

“If you arrest Ace Magashule, you arrest the whole ANC!” one demonstrator shouted.

One of the top six most powerful officials of the ANC, which has ruled Africa’s most industrialised nation for a quarter of a century, Magashule faces allegations related to a contract to audit houses with asbestos roofs awarded while he was premier of the Free State, of which Bloemfontein was the capital.

He denies wrongdoing.

Magashule is from a faction within the governing party that has opposed Ramaphosa since he replaced Zuma as head of state in February 2018. Ramaphosa has pledged to clean up the ANC’s image and take a tough stance on corruption.

“This is a stress test for the ANC,” said independent political analyst Daniel Silke. “Whilst there will be a pushback from those implicated in corruption..., (who) will try to factionalise the debate..., the president has sufficient strength within the broader ANC to withstand this.”

Tellingly, the ANC has not asked Magashule to step down because of the allegations.

Speaking on state broadcaster SABC, ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte warned Magashule supporters, “while we are supporting (him), we should not do so by destroying the very movement that we want to change this country.”

Reporting by Promit Mukherjee and Wendell Roelf; Editing by Tim Cocks and Mark Heinrich