After weeks of disciplinary hearings that were cast as a test of its resolve, South Africa’s governing party on Thursday suspended Julius Malema, the populist leader of its youth wing, for five years and told him to step down for bringing the party into disrepute.
The penalty was much harsher than expected, a display of authority seemingly intended to sideline Mr. Malema in South Africa’s fractious political debate and shore up President Jacob Zuma’s expected bid next year for a second term in office.
But it also risked creating a backlash among Mr. Malema’s supporters, many of them young and jobless and with no niche in the post-apartheid economy, who are drawn to his strident calls for nationalization of the mines that have enriched South Africa’s white minority elite. And it raised the question of whether some of Mr. Malema’s more powerful supporters within the governing party would stick with him.
A local columnist, Karima Brown, called the suspension “the disgraceful moment of the A.N.C.’s 99th year.”
Even with Thursday’s ruling, Mr. Malema might still be able to wield his influence during the party’s internal electoral process next year. In a statement, the youth league suggested that Mr. Malema would appeal the decision, a lengthy process during which he would remain the group’s president.
The youth league condemned the disciplinary committee for not allowing Mr. Malema and his four aides, who received shorter suspensions, to offer mitigating circumstances. It added that the league remained “unshaken and resolute in its call for the eventual transfer of wealth from minority hands to the majority of our people.”
The disciplinary board claim that the suspensions stemmed from calls by Mr. Malema and his aides for the overthrow of the government in neighboring Botswana, an act that A.N.C. officials described as sowing discord and bringing the party into disrepute. They ordered him to “vacate his office” as youth leader.
If upheld on appeal, the suspension would take Mr. Malema past the age limit of 35 for the leadership of the Youth League, said Fiona Forde, the author of a biography of Mr. Malema. “He will fight this,” she said, “but he has very little wiggle room.”
Riot police took up positions in downtown Johannesburg around the A.N.C. headquarters to pre-empt a repetition of mass protests by Mr. Malema’s supporters when the disciplinary hearing started in August. Only a few Malema supporters turned out, standing across the street from the headquarters, where the ruling was announced to a group of about 100 journalists crammed into a vestibule.
But the suspense was palpable as the chairman of the disciplinary committee, Derek Hanekom, reading from an iPad, spent about an hour discussing the sanctions against the aides before getting to the decision on Mr. Malema himself.
“We don’t find joy in disciplining any people,” Jackson Mthembu, the A.N.C. national spokesman, said during a news conference at the headquarters. “But as you know, this is one of the tools that we have got to use to rein in any deviant behavior.”
The ruling came after a judge in a separate case ruled in September that Mr. Malema was guilty of hate speech for singing an apartheid-era freedom song that included lyrics calling on people to “Shoot the Boer,” or white farmers. In that case, however, many A.N.C. officials defended Mr. Malema, saying that he had a right to free speech and that the song was a figurative call to dismantle apartheid, not a literal incitement to violence.
While few political analysts had depicted Mr. Malema as a potential challenger to Mr. Zuma for the South African presidency, he had been widely seen as a potential kingmaker in the A.N.C.’s internal political maneuvering.
In the previous party leadership vote in 2007, Mr. Malema swung his support behind Mr. Zuma in a power struggle with the nation’s former president, Thabo Mbeki. But since then, Mr. Malema has shifted his support away from Mr. Zuma, whose aides feared Mr. Malema would support some new challenge to the president.
Although the elections are not due for a year, the A.N.C.’s internal leadership vote will play a critical role in determining whether Mr. Zuma fulfills his ambition of serving a second term. Under A.N.C. rules, the party leader automatically becomes the presidential candidate, making him a virtual shoo-in because of the A.N.C.’s overwhelming electoral dominance.
The disciplinary committee thus had assumed huge importance in shaping the power play between Mr. Zuma and Mr. Malema.
Still, Steven Friedman, a professor at Rhodes University, said he believed the ruling would have a negligible impact on the party’s internal struggle because Mr. Malema was simply a front man for an anti-Zuma A.N.C. faction that promotes the creation of a black business elite.
Mr. Malema’s protectors “will simply find somebody else to do the same thing that he is doing,” Dr. Friedman said.
Some analysts argue that the sanctions against Mr. Malema could also damage his backers. Mr. Malema still faces a police investigation into accusations that he used his political connections to get millions of dollars in public money directed to companies he had a stake in.
Stephen Grootes, a columnist, wrote on before the ruling: “If Malema is seen to get off, he will be uncontrollable. As a result, the party will be ungovernable. And it could be the starting point of the alliance’s unraveling.”
In recent days and weeks, there had been a series of hints of leniency from the ruling elite. On Tuesday, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said the governing party “abandons only the most incorrigible.”
“It has the confidence that it can correct its members,” Mr. Motlanthe said.
Mr. Zuma was quoted as making similar remarks after the hate speech ruling in September. “The job of the A.N.C. is to help Malema, to mold him into a dynamic, good leader,” he said. “That’s what we need to do. It is only if you can’t do it that the question becomes: ‘What do we do with him?’ ”
Mr. Zuma appears to have bet that the blowback from Malema supporters will not topple his own re-election bid.
Jonny Steinberg, a South African commentator who teaches at Oxford University, said of Mr. Malema, “I guess the question is how much his anger is going to translate into power.” Further, Dr. Steinberg said, “It seems that Zuma believes that it’s not much. It seems Zuma believes that he has Malema’s measure.”