South Africa's governing African National Congress (ANC) has suspended its youth leader for five years for sowing intolerance and disunity by criticising the president and his policies.
The action, announced live on national television, against Julius Malema was unexpectedly severe. The party in previous months had seemed unwilling to crack down on a man who spewed insults and divisive rhetoric, one whom old guard ANC leaders apparently did not want to alienate.
The 30-year-old has been seen as the king maker who helped President Jacob Zuma defeat a predecessor in an internal party power struggle but brought on the sanctions by criticizing the president and his policies concerning neighboring Botswana.
"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," said Derek Hanekom, chairman of the party's national disciplinary committee.
Malema has 14 days to appeal the rulings made by an internal ANC disciplinary panel. 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. "The ANC is our home."
The sanctions deprive Malema, who has been active in the ANC since he was a primary school student and it was a banned group battling apartheid, of a formal power base.
The ANC said Malema's membership was frozen because he questioned whether Zuma was providing the kind of pan-African leadership that former President Thabo Mbeki had provided. Ironically, Malema helped bring Zuma to power by rallying enough votes to make him the head of the ANC, replacing Mbeki. The ANC president generally is the party's candidate to lead the country, and Zuma went on to become president in 2009.
Malema's suspension also stemmed from his calling the government of neighboring Botswana imperialist, which the ANC sees as an ally.
Few Malema supporters were outside ANC 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.
Malema had called for nationalization of South Africa's mines, though that debate was not related to Malema's 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.