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African National Congress secretary-general Ace Magashule appears for a bail hearing in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on Nov. 13, 2020.The Associated Press

A top official in South Africa’s governing African National Congress was granted bail on Friday, in a graft case that has highlighted divisions within a party whose dominance has been unchallenged since the 1994 end of white-minority rule.

Ace Magashule, secretary-general and one of the top six most powerful officials of the ANC, faces allegations related to a contract to audit houses with asbestos roofs awarded while he was premier of the Free State province.

He was not asked to plead in his first court appearance on Friday, where he faced 21 charges of corruption and fraud, but has previously denied any wrongdoing.

The charges have put him on a collision course with President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has pledged to clean up the ANC’s image with a tough stance on corruption, but whose detractors accuse him of using it to sideline his opponents.

Magistrate Amos Moos at the Bloemfontein Magistrate Court set the bail for Magashule at 200,000 rand ($12,823.72) and ordered him to appear before the court on Feb. 19.

“We expect to add three more accused on the charge-sheet,” the National Prosecuting Authority said in a statement.

Outside the court, thousands of supporters denounced the trial as a witch hunt, chanting, dancing and waving banners reading “Hands off Comrade Magashule”, footage from national TV channels showed.

After appearing, Magashule, who had handed himself in to police earlier in the day, stepped outside to address the crowd. “I will only step aside if I am asked by the branches who voted me,” he said, to loud applause.

Some protesters tried to tear down a barbed wire cordon around the court while others burned yellow ANC T-shirts bearing Ramaphosa’s face, calling on him to step down.

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

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

Magashule is from a faction within the governing party that has pushed radical economic transformation and has at times appeared at odds with the Ramaphosa since he replaced Zuma as head of state in February 2018.

“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 factionalize 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.”

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