A defiant South African governing party youth leader claimed he has been the victim of a political witch hunt and vowed Wednesday to appeal a five-year suspension handed to him by the disciplinary committee of the African National Congress.
Julius Malema spoke during a nationally televised news conference nearly a week after the results of his disciplinary hearing were announced. He questioned whether the proceedings were just and said that he and his colleagues had been subjected to "unfair, immoral and unprincipled public trial."
The disciplinary committee ruled against the 30-year-old Malema for questioning President Jacob Zuma's leadership and support for the government of neighboring Botswana, which the ANC Youth League had labeled imperialist. Another party body will hear Malema's appeal of a sentence that could mean the end of a political career he started as a school boy.
"Only the willfully blind can believe that this matter is purely about discipline and not intended to settle political scores or to stifle debate," Malema said.
Malema told supporters last week that he and other top Youth League leaders who were disciplined alongside him would appeal. He repeated his intentions to appeal on Wednesday. His suspension and an order he step down as Youth League president will not be carried out unless confirmed by the appeals body.
He also focused attention on divisions within the governing party that other leaders have tried to play down. The ANC appears roiled by internal power struggles as it prepares for a crucial policymaking conference in late 2012, the year the former anti-apartheid movement turns 100.
In a statement later, the main ANC, said it was disturbed to see the party portrayed as divided.
"We view this as a malicious and divisive way of projecting the ANC's national leadership by some sections within our ranks and the media, informed by reasons only known to them, which are not based on any facts," the statement said.
The ANC added it was "very unfortunate" that Youth League leaders were questioning the disciplinary process and its outcomes.
The ANC has won every national election and most provincial and local votes since apartheid ended in 1994. No opposition party comes close to its clout and influence. Instead of party politics, South Africa has factions within the ANC competing for prominence.
The ANC's Youth League has portrayed itself as the voice of the poor, young majority. On Wednesday, Malema repeated calls for a debate on nationalizing the mines as a way of fighting poverty, a position senior ANC members have rejected. Malema also said it was time to publicly debate who would be the next ANC leader, though his elders have said it is too early for such a discussion.
Malema said he had no desire to lead a "toothless" organization where young leaders aren't allowed to speak out.
"We are a radical and militant voice," he said. "I'm inspired by fearless Nelson Mandela."
Mandela helped found the Youth 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 last week, saying some Youth League leaders 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."
When asked at Wednesday's news conference about reports that police and tax officials are investigating Malema's business dealings, he denied any wrongdoing.
"I'm not worried about being locked up," he said.