JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A top official in South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has taken the party to court to challenge his suspension pending charges of fraud and corruption against him, heightening tensions within the fractured organization once led by Nelson Mandela.
Ace Magashule is the secretary general of the ANC and a fierce political rival of party leader and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Magashule’s decision to go to court is another indication of the rival factions within the ANC, and is viewed as a direct challenge to Ramaphosa’s drive to rid the ANC of the corruption that has damaged its image — and that of Africa’s most developed economy — over the past decade.
In court papers, Magashule has questioned the legality of the party rule, pushed by Ramaphosa, which forces ANC officials facing criminal charges to “step aside” from their positions until their cases are finalized. Magashule has said the rule undermines the constitutional principle of a person being innocent until proven guilty.
South African national broadcaster SABC reported Friday that Magashule’s lawyers had filed the papers at the Gauteng High Court on Thursday.
The move also raises questions over whether Magashule will apologize, as instructed by the ANC leadership, for sending a letter to Ramaphosa purportedly suspending the president. Magashule has been given until Friday to apologize or face more disciplinary action.
ANC officials have been implicated in a wave of corruption scandals over the last decade, most notably under the rule of former party leader and former South African president Jacob Zuma, whose own corruption trial is due to start next week.
Some ANC leaders have already resigned from their positions under the “step aside” rule and others may be suspended in the coming weeks if they do not stand down.
Magashule is the most senior official in the party to be affected by the rule, seen as a key policy for Ramaphosa in his battle with an ANC faction sympathetic to Magashule and Zuma.
Magashule is set to go on trial in August on charges of fraud and corruption related to a government contract worth over $18 million.
It is alleged that Magashule personally benefited from the contract, which was awarded when he was the premier of Free State province, which issued the contract. He has denied all charges and framed the case as politically motivated.
Last month, Ramaphosa testified at the state-backed inquiry into widescale corruption in government and state-owned companies during Zuma’s tenure as president from 2009 to 2018.
Ramaphosa is set to testify again later this month about what he knew about corruption in government during the period when he was deputy president from 2014 to 2018.
Zuma has refused to testify at the commission, which is separate from his corruption trial, and is facing a legal battle with the inquiry. The inquiry has applied for him to be jailed for refusing to obey a court order compelling him to testify.