South Africa’s governing party rejected calls to review a so-called step-aside rule that compels indicted officials to step down from their roles.

The decision at the African National Congress’s five-yearly policy conference is a setback for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s detractors. They’ve argued that the policy has been applied selectively to bar potential opponents from challenging him and running for other positions when the party elects its leaders in December.

Proponents of scrapping the rule had intended to use the issue as a proxy to test their voting bloc’s strength before the elective conference.

“The overwhelming view of policy conference is for the retention of the step-aside provisions to enhance the integrity of the movement and its leadership,” Ramaphosa said at the close of the conference on Sunday. “Conference noted strong concerns on the perceived lack of consistency in the application and implementation of the policy.

Conference agreed that these must receive urgent attention so that the application of the guidelines is impartial, fair and consistent.”

The ANC introduced the step-aside rule last year as part of Ramaphosa’s efforts to clean up the party in the wake of his predecessor Jacob Zuma’s scandal-marred tenure, during which corruption became pervasive. A three-year commission of inquiry into state graft found the ANC responsible for keeping Zuma in office and therefore for the looting of billions of rands of taxpayers’ money.

The motion to scrap the step-aside rule had been championed by the powerful KwaZulu-Natal region, which sends the most delegates to party conferences and is a key support base for Zuma, along with the northern Limpopo province.

Disgraced former health minister Zweli Mkhize is so far the only challenger to Ramaphosa’s bid for a second term in December. Mkhize quit his post lasts year after being implicated in a tender scandal, though he denied any wrongdoing.

The scrapping of the step-aside rule would have enabled Mkhize to still run for the position, even if he’s criminally charged before the December conference.

Mkhize is part of a grouping that includes the party’s deputy president, David Mabuza, and Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile, who are also vying for top potions in the ANC.

Scrapping the resolution also might have opened the door for suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, a backer of Zuma, to enter the party leadership race. Magashule was charged with money laundering and graft in 2020, before being suspended in May 2021.

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