S. Africa's ANC party suspends top official in graft scandal

Ace Magashule wearing a suit and tie: Elias Magashule has ignored repeated demands to step down © GULSHAN KHAN Elias Magashule has ignored repeated demands to step down

South Africa's governing ANC party has suspended its secretary general, Elias "Ace" Magashule, over graft charges in a political victory for President Cyril Ramaphosa in the divided party.

Magashule is the first top party official to be temporarily forced out under a new policy aimed at turning the page on a litany of graft scandals.

Magashule, 61, was given a 30-day ultimatum on March 30 to step aside after being charged with embezzling public funds while he was premier of the Free State province. 

After he ignored the deadline and did not resign voluntarily, a meeting of the party leadership on Monday "reaffirmed" the decision to force any member facing criminal charges to resign or face suspension.

The same day, a letter from his deputy Jessie Duarte informed Magashule of his suspension.

"You are hereby temporarily suspended with effect from 3 May 2021 until the final outcome of your court proceedings," Duarte wrote.

The letter, dated Monday and leaked to the media on Wednesday, said his temporary suspension would be "in the best interest of the organisation".

"You have been indicted to appear in a court of law on charges of corruption and fraud, alternatively theft and money laundering," Duarte wrote.

The African National Congress (ANC) of Nelson Mandela has been at pains to cleanse an image marred by years of graft.

- 'Turning point' -

David Lewis, head of the Corruption Watch NGO, praised the move as the "first really strong sign that the ANC is prepared to clean up its own ranks".

The suspension is a "turning point" for the ANC, setting a "serious precedent" that will be difficult to ignore in future, said political analyst Mcebisi Ndletyana.

"It is a win for the ANC as a whole," Ndletyana told AFP.

In a statement late Wednesday ANC spokesman Pule Mabe said the party would meet at the weekend "to provide the necessary update" on the matter.

Magashule is to be paid during his suspension but not permitted to represent the ANC or speak publicly about the party.

Charges against Magashule relate to public funds that were set aside to vet government-built housing with asbestos roofs in 2014 when he headed the provincial government, dubbed a "gangster state" in a book by investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh. 

The hazardous roofs were never removed, and investigators believe that the equivalent of over $12 million (10 million euros) was pocketed. 

Magashule was briefly arrested in November and granted bail on graft charges. He is next expected to appear before a high court in August.

His removal is seen as a first major political score for President Cyril Ramaphosa who first came to power in 2018 vowing to fight corruption when he succeeded the scandal-tainted Jacob Zuma.

"The suspension will bring some credibility to the president’s longstanding pledge of addressing corruption within the ANC," said Aleix Montana, analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

But analysts note that Magashule, a renowned political infighter with a permanent scowl, is a Zuma confidant with an entrenched following within the party.

John Steenhuisen, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, said it was not enough to just suspend Magashule, demanding that the party surrender all the evidence it has about Magashule's "corrupt dealings and ensure that he is put behind bars".

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S. Africa's ANC party suspends top official in graft scandal