PRETORIA (Reuters) - Populist South African politician Julius Malema narrowly escaped being barred from public office on Monday when a judge placed the vocal critic of President Jacob Zuma under "provisional sequestration" over an outstanding tax debt.
The left-wing Malema, who led the ruling ANC's youth wing until his expulsion for ill-discipline in 2012, is running for president under the banner of his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in May 7 elections.
The battle over his 16 million rand ($1.4 million) in unpaid taxes could have derailed his political ambitions if the court had laid down a more serious "final sequestration" ruling, which would have prevented him from taking a seat in parliament.
Monday's high court ruling could still be made permanent at a hearing scheduled for May 26, meaning Malema's political future could still be in doubt. In sequestration, a court orders a person's assets to be set aside to pay off creditors.
Malema has struck a chord with impoverished blacks frustrated by the slow pace of change 20 years after the end of apartheid, and angered by perceptions of corruption among the governing elite.
Launched last year, the EFF champions the expropriation of land and nationalization of mines and banks without compensation.
It has accused the ruling party of using the tax authorities to end the career of Malema, who has never held elected public office.
"We shall appeal the decision until the highest court of the land," it said in a statement.
The ANC is expected to extend its two-decade rule easily in the May 7 polls, but is unlikely to see the nearly two-thirds majority it took in the last election in 2009.
($1 = 11.0790 South African rand)
(Reporting by David Dolan; Editing by Andrew Heavens)