The leader of the African National Congress youth wing vowed Thursday to fight a five-year suspension a governing party disciplinary committee handed down after ruling the 30-year-old who helped bring the president to power has been a divisive force.
Julius Malema's determination to contest findings that he had sown intolerance and disunity was no surprise. But many South Africans were surprised that the ANC had finally confronted him after months of seeing his defiance and insults tolerated. In addition to being suspended from the party for five years _ meaning he could be sidelined during a crucial party policy making conference next year _ Malema was fired as ANC Youth League president and his top league aides were sanctioned alongside him.
Malema has been active in the ANC since he was in primary school and has been seen as the king maker who helped President Jacob Zuma defeat a predecessor in an internal party power struggle. Malema was hauled before the party disciplinary committee for questioning Zuma's leadership and government support for the government of neighboring Botswana, which the Youth League had labeled imperialist.
Thursday's move against Malema, announced live on national television, was welcomed by opposition parties and by ANC allies like labor movement leaders. The ANC said Thursday's ruling by its disciplinary committee "will make the concerned members better members but more importantly better leaders within the ANC going forward."
The independent South African Institute of Race Relations said the ANC had to act to avert a possible "overthrow of the current senior leadership of the party which would in turn have led to fundamental policy changes for South Africa." But it added someone else could emerge, either within or outside the ANC, offering radical solutions to the crises of poverty and youth unemployment.
Malema has 14 days to appeal Thursday's rulings. Malema said he would appeal.
"We are not intimidated by any outcome," he said in the northern town of Polokwane, where South Africa's eTV station showed him addressing a small crowd of supporters Thursday. "The ANC is our home."
Few Malema supporters were outside the ANC's downtown Johannesburg headquarters Thursday. They showed little reaction to the ruling, contrasting with crowds who rioted when the disciplinary hearings against Malema began in August. Demonstrators had burned ANC flags and T-shirts bearing Zuma's image.
Malema portrayed himself as the political heir of former Youth League leaders like Nelson Mandela. Mandela helped found the league in 1944 and was known then as being more radical than older ANC leaders.
The ANC's disciplinary committee appeared to take issue with comparisons to Mandela in its ruling Thursday against Malema and five other Youth League leaders, saying some had shown an "arrogance and defiance" that was "a far cry from the manner in which different leaders of the Youth League, over the decades, conducted their affairs."
Malema still has influential allies within the ANC, including Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Malema's elders had said they believed he had potential and wanted to groom him for larger roles, but he has repeatedly clashed with the ANC old guard, criticizing them for everything from their accents to their politics.
After an earlier round of disciplinary hearings, the party fined Malema in May, ordering him to apologize for sowing discord and undermining Zuma's authority. Malema also was handed a two-year suspension that was not immediately imposed. On Thursday, the ANC said that earlier suspension would now take effect, and run concurrently with the new five-year suspension.
"The acts of misconduct for which the respondent has been found guilty are very serious, and have damaged the integrity of the ANC and South Africa's international reputation," Derek Hanekom, chairman of the party's national disciplinary committee, said Thursday.
Malema had called for nationalization of South Africa's mines, though that debate was not related to the disciplinary process. ANC leaders have repeatedly said nationalization is not government policy.
On Wednesday, Moody's rating agency changed its credit rating outlook from stable to negative for South Africa, citing among the reasons the nationalization debate. Moody's said the discussion was scaring investors.
In September, Malema lost a suit brought by a white rights group that had accused him of hate speech for repeatedly singing a song some whites find offensive. Malema and others say "Shoot the Boer" is a call to resist oppression. "Boer" means farmer in Afrikaans, and is sometimes used to refer to whites.
Malema and his supporters have continued to sing the song despite the September court order banning it, including during a peaceful, march Malema led last month from Johannesburg to the capital, Pretoria, to draw attention to poverty and unemployment among young South Africans.