JOHANNESBURG — A top official of South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, has been charged with 21 counts of fraud and corruption, a significant step in President Cyril Ramaphosa's drive against graft in the country.
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule was charged and released on bail at court in Bloemfontein. He was cheered by hundreds of supporters who gathered outside the courthouse, showing that many within the ruling party do not support the anti-corruption campaign.
Magashule is the latest high-profile figure to face corruption charges as authorities intensify investigations into wide-ranging graft allegations in the country.
Magashule is accused of involvement in the looting of the equivalent of $13.8 million when he was the premier of the Free State province from 2009 to 2018.
It is alleged that he benefitted from a contract to audit how many houses in the province still had asbestos roofs, which was awarded to his close associates. The contract was awarded for $15 million, but it has since emerged that only $1.2 million was actually spent doing the work.
State prosecutors said that Magashule's former personal assistant when he was the premier of Free State, Moroadi Cholota, had turned state witness against Magashule. Cholota is currently living in the United States.
Magashule is now the eighth accused in the case, including ANC-linked businessmen and former high-profile government officials.
He told his supporters outside the court that he would not step down from his position as secretary-general despite facing serious charges.
"I was elected by branches of the ANC at a national conference, and I will only step down if they make that decision," said Magashule.
Scores of ANC supporters, wearing colorful party T-shirts and hats and waving placards bearing messages of support for Magashule, surrounded the Bloemfontein court to show their support for Magashule on Friday. This demonstration was despite the party's call that people should only support Magashule as individuals, not under the banner of the party.
The demonstration to support Magashule shows that there are many within the ANC who do not support Ramaphosa's anti-corruption drive. At the head of the opposition to Ramaphosa is former presidenti Jacob Zuma, who is also facing corruption charges, in a different case.
Magashule's case was postponed to February next year, where the prosecution will apply for it to be transferred to the High Court for trial.