Julius Malema, the leader of the African National Congress youth wing who has emerged as one of South Africa's most powerful politicians, responded to the decision to suspend him from the ruling party in combative fashion yesterday, warning his senior colleagues that "the gloves are off".
But most analysts rang the death knell on the 30-year-old Youth League president's short-term political future, after an ANC disciplinary committee took the unexpectedly harsh decision to suspend him for five years for bringing the party into disrepute.
Pro-business commentators commended the move as a clear signal that the ANC under President Jacob Zuma has distanced itself from the populist youth leader's calls for the nationalisation of the country's banks and mining industry.
Mr Malema, who said he would appeal, hinted that the influential ANC Youth League is capable of producing an upset at the party's centenary conference in Bloemfontein (Mangaung) next year, when President Zuma is expected to seek re-election as party leader – a position that implies a renewed term as President of South Africa, given the ANC's electoral might.
"Let the enemy enjoy, but that victory will not last. We will be liberated by Mangaung 2012," he said on SAFM radio. "We must never apologise. The gloves are off."
Earlier, Derek Hanekom, a former minister who headed the disciplinary panel, said: "Malema damaged the standing of the ANC and South Africa's international reputation."
Since supporting Jacob Zuma's successful coup in December 2007 against his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, the ANC Youth League under Mr Malema has emerged as a vociferous campaign movement, ostensibly fighting for the rights of the poor.
But Mr Malema has gone further, accusing South Africa's whites of having stolen their wealth. Until a recent court judgment, he persisted in singing an anti-apartheid song calling for the killing of Boers, or white farmers.
Crucially, he has also embarrassed the party mainstream by praising the policies of the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, and calling into question the ANC government's refusal to nationalise key industrial sectors.
But this year, information leaked to the media – presumably from hostile factions in the ANC – has included claims that Mr Malema influenced tender awards for public works in return for kickbacks. In May the tax authorities opened an investigation into his affairs. But the charges against Mr Malema – which were not fully revealed until yesterday's judgment – suggest they were calculated to prevent the politician from going down with any political capital in reserve.
He was found guilty on two main counts. One related to a statement he made on 31 July that the ANC no longer takes an interest in continental affairs; this was taken by the disciplinary committee to imply an "unlawful comparison" between President Zuma and President Mbeki. The second related to his claim that the Youth League intended to send a delegation to neighbouring Botswana to bolster opposition to President Ian Khama.
A central success of Mr Mbeki's presidency was raising the status of Africa on the world stage, including taking the continent's issues to the G20 group of leading economies and playing a lead role in the African Union. President Khama, who is half white and critical of President Mugabe, is seen as pro-Western by Mr Malema and his supporters.
It is unclear whether the suspension of Mr Malema places President Zuma in a stronger position to secure a second term as ANC leader next year. President Zuma has a mixed record as President and faces a persistent threat from Mr Mbeki who still has powerful allies.Reuse content