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African National Congress Secretary-General Ace Magashule gives a press briefing in Johannesburg, on Feb. 13, 2018.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Police and prosecutors have approved an arrest warrant for one of South Africa’s most powerful politicians on corruption charges, adding new fuel to a bitter factional fight inside the party that has ruled the country since the end of apartheid.

Ace Magashule, Secretary-General of the African National Congress, is one of the highest-ranking officials ever to be charged with corruption in South Africa. His fate could determine whether President Cyril Ramaphosa will succeed in consolidating power within the ANC, allowing him to seek a second term in office.

Mr. Magashule is loosely affiliated with an ANC faction, unofficially led by former president Jacob Zuma, that has often sniped at Mr. Ramaphosa’s pro-business policies and anti-corruption campaigns. Some of the faction’s supporters have made repeated attempts to oppose Mr. Ramaphosa’s leadership, unsuccessfully so far.

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The prosecution of Mr. Magashule is seen as a crucial step in the anti-corruption effort that was launched when Mr. Ramaphosa replaced Mr. Zuma as president in 2018. Many South Africans have been skeptical of the campaign, since only low-level politicians have been arrested until now.

The approval of the arrest warrant for Mr. Magashule, long rumoured but much delayed, means that he will appear in court on Friday on several corruption-related charges, according to multiple reports in the South African media on Tuesday.

He is charged in connection with a government contract, worth the equivalent of about $21-million, that was awarded to several businesses to assess and remove asbestos from the roofs of thousands of impoverished residents in Free State province, where Mr. Magashule was premier at the time.

The contract was awarded in 2014 without bidding, and the asbestos was never removed from the houses. Instead, most of the money was allegedly pocketed by the business owners and diverted for other purposes – including the U.S. college tuition of the daughter of a local judge, reportedly at Mr. Magashule’s request.

One of the business owners acquired an expensive villa and a fleet of 25 luxury vehicles, including a Ferrari and a Bentley. The cars were seized last month by the Asset Forfeiture Unit of the national prosecuting authority.

“I’m not worried at all, because I know I haven’t done anything wrong as a law-abiding citizen of South Africa,” Mr. Magashule told South African media on Tuesday as he campaigned for the ANC in local by-elections in Soweto township.

Later, in a campaign speech in Soweto, he hinted that he would portray the corruption charges as an internal conspiracy against him. “The enemy has infiltrated the African National Congress,” he said.

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Last month, in a preview of this strategy, a few dozen ANC members marched in the streets of Johannesburg to voice their support for Mr. Magashule and Mr. Zuma. Their supporters have often claimed that the two ANC veterans are victims of “white monopoly capitalists” in South Africa’s business community who are resisting the movement for “radical economic transformation.”

Some analysts have predicted that Mr. Magashule’s arrest would trigger an open revolt against Mr. Ramaphosa within the ANC, although the President is believed to be supported by a majority of the ANC’s top members.

A popular member of the Ramaphosa cabinet, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, recently told his 2.3 million Twitter followers that Mr. Magashule had employed a “thug” at ANC headquarters to attack the President.

Those internal tensions could intensify if the ANC loses ground in local elections next year. A drop in its support would increase the prospect of a leadership challenge against Mr. Ramaphosa.

In the shorter term, a looming test is whether Mr. Magashule will step aside from his ANC positions after the criminal charges are filed against him. Under a recently introduced ANC policy, anyone charged with corruption is obliged to step aside from any official positions, but analysts predict that Mr. Magashule will resist this.

The ANC issued a terse statement on Tuesday, saying Mr. Magashule is consulting his lawyers and has promised to co-operate with the law-enforcement agencies. “The ANC will be monitoring these developments closely,” it said.

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Leona Kleynhans, a member of the Free State provincial legislature for the opposition Democratic Alliance party, said the party is happy that “the man who has been plundering the province and impoverishing its citizens since 1994 will face justice.”

Mr. Magashule has “acted with impunity for 26 years” but this might now finally end, she said in a statement on Tuesday.

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