South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, appeared to back down yesterday from publicly disciplining its outspoken youth league leader, Julius Malema.
After two days of speculation that the leadership would rein in the 29-year-old firebrand who has ignored pleas from the President, Jacob Zuma, to avoid further inflammatory statements, the ANC said that it would be keeping the matter in house.
"There is no way we are going to have any disciplinary hearing in public," the ANC deputy secretary general, Thandi Modise, told a media briefing in Johannesburg yesterday.
The announcement came after half a dozen of the party's senior leadership, including the President, met late into Monday night to discuss formal disciplinary charges including ill-discipline and bringing the party into disrepute.
Yesterday morning Ms Modise said the "matter was on the table" but would be dealt with internally. In recent weeks the youth league leader has embarrassed the government by calling Zimbabwe's former opposition MDC "imperialists"; by ignoring ANC demands to stop singing a controversial song with the words "kill the Boer"; and by angrily ejecting a BBC journalist from a press conference, calling him a "bastard" and a "bloody agent".
This led President Zuma to openly chastise Mr Malema last week, saying his statements were "alien to the culture of the ANC".
Yesterday there was widespread confusion as to whether the ANCYL leader was now off the hook. Ms Modise said that charges "were not yet formulated" but another ANC official said privately that the matter had been dropped.
The latest retreat from a difficult confrontation will only add to pressure on the ANC president, Mr Zuma, who is accused by his critics of failing to take big decisions. The President, who has faced his own internal crises after revelations about his private life, has tried to please all sides in the warring factions within the ANC.
According to local media reports over the weekend, Mr Malema had received a letter summoning him to a disciplinary hearing to answer formal charges ranging from promoting racism, tribal chauvinism, sexism, religious and political intolerance, to inciting violence and breaking party discipline. Ordinarily these offences would be punishable by expulsion from the party, a fine or a severe censure. However, a grassroots backlash orchestrated by Mr Malema's allies and a youth league delegation that lobbied the leadership on Monday appear to have dissuaded Mr Zuma from taking any concrete action.
Mr Malema's latest public spats began with his revival of an anti-apartheid anthem which contains lyrics calling for the murder of Afrikaner farmers. Then with feelings running high and the government appealing for calm after the murder of the white supremacist leader Eugene Terre-Blanche, the ANCYL president said that he had died before changing his racist behaviour.
On a trip to neighbouring Zimbabwe he ignored Mr Zuma's delicate role as mediator in the troubled power-sharing government and appeared at a rally for the ruling Zanu-PF party. He wore a shirt plastered with the face of Robert Mugabe and endorsed the veteran president before insulting the Movement for Democratic Change. He then praised Zimbabwe's land reform programme, which is widely credited with ruining the southern African nation's economy.
Once back in South Africa and facing censure, Mr Malema then remarked that the former president Thabo Mbeki never rebuked him publicly when he disagreed with him.
The slightly tubby and expensively dressed youth leader has rarely been out of the headlines in the last 18 months. He was a vocal supporter of Mr Zuma during his rape trial and was convicted under South Africa's hate speech laws for insulting the alleged victim.
This year, Mr Malema has publicly clashed with the ANC leadership by calling for the nationalisation of the mining industry, one of the country's economic mainstays. He was then accused of funding his lavish lifestyle by profiting from state contracts – a charge that he has angrily rejected.
The accusations increased pressure on fellow ANC leaders to undergo a "lifestyle audit" amid widespread public suspicion of corrupt practices.
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