South Africa’s ruling African National Congress appears set for a bruising and noisy power struggle after one of its most powerful officials refused to accept suspension from the party.
Ace Magashule, the ANC’s secretary general, was served with a suspension letter on Wednesday after refusing to comply with an order to step down after being charged by public prosecutors in November in connection with an allegedly fraudulent $18m project to find and remove asbestos from homes in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa had hailed the move as a major boost to his attempts to reform the ANC.
On Thursday, Magashule said that he was appealing against the decision, refused to step down and said he was suspending the president.
“Nothing is going on with me … I am still the party’s secretary general … I am not [going to resign]. They are using state organs and we know what they are cooking,” Magashule told the local Eyewitness News network.
Magashule, 61, is seen as the leader of a populist faction within the ANC which rose to power under former president Jacob Zuma, who is also now facing multiple corruption charges. Both have denied all charges of wrongdoing, which they say are politically motivated.
Ramaphosa has struggled to impose his authority on the ANC since taking power in 2018 and to purge corrupt officials from its ranks. An ongoing judicial inquiry has uncovered evidence of systemic misadministration and theft, while scandals involving Covid-19 relief funds have caused outrage.
The ANC agreed in March that officials facing corruption charges in the courts would be required to step down until cleared with their suspensions reviewed every six months.
Magashule said the decision meant that those officials facing any allegations of corruption should step down.
Ramaphosa has been accused by political opponents of buying votes from party delegates during his campaign to take control of the ANC in 2017 but the allegations have not reached the courts.
In contrast, Magashule faces trial on charges of fraud and money laundering.
Though he will not face a general election until 2024, Ramaphosa needs to receive the support of the ANC’s senior leaders at a key party conference next year to remain in power and potentially secure a second term.
The former businessman started his career as a labour activist under the racist apartheid regime and is seen as the leader of the party’s reformist wing.
Bongani Bongo, a former state security minister, and several other ANC figures were also suspended on Wednesday. Bongo, who faces a corruption and money-laundering trial next year, has said he will appeal against the decision, and also denies wrongdoing.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s most developed country is struggling with a flagging economy, soaring unemployment and the continent’s worst outbreak of Covid-19.
Foreign minister Naledi Pandor told CNN that “all those who are corrupt to go to jail”, and that President Cyril Ramaphosa was trying to address the “absence of ethics and integrity” in the country.
“It has been a tough challenge, but [the] president … is resolute in his intention to address the malfeasant prevalent in our country,” Pandor said in an interview with the US network.
Though successive elections have seen a steadily diminishing vote for the party once led by Nelson Mandela, opposition parties have been unable to mount any serious electoral challenge to the ANC’s dominance.