At the end of an extended two-month process, the president of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) was handed a five-year suspension from South Africa's ruling ANC for offences against party discipline. Julius Malema was joined in his punishment by the league’s four next most senior office-bearers. There will be appeals, but these hold little prospect (beyond a possible reduction in the length of exclusion) of a substantial alteration of the verdict.
The outcome reflects Malema’s total misreading of the political qualities of Jacob Zuma. Zuma was propelled to South Africa's highest office on a populist wave that represented a reaction to the elitism of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki. The third post-apartheid president (Nelson Mandela was of course the first) has cultivated the image of an amiable buffoon: the dancing, singing president, friend to all, warm and easy in company, the man no one dislikes and (near fatally) whom the party can push around. Yet beneath the surface Zuma is a wily, calculating and thoroughly ruthless politician, with a profound commitment both to his political survival and personal aggrandisement.
The outlines of the Zuma-Malema contest are being endlessly replayed in South Africa's media. The succession of episodes form a large part of the country's political history in the past four years:
* How Malema’s ANCYL joined with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and many others to form a "coalition of the aggrieved" to oust Thabo Mbeki and replace him with Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in December 2007, this after Mbeki had dismissed Zuma from the deputy presidency for apparent implication in a corrupt arms deal
* How, after the general election of 2009 and his rise to the state presidency, Zuma proved benignly tolerant of a series of public statements by Julius Malema - about whites "stealing land", for example, or about nationalising the mines - which both veered close to directly contradicting the ANC’s programme agreed at Polokwane and which greatly embarrassed many within the party
* How, as time wore on, Malema’s confidence in his ability to reshape the ANC grew apace with his embrace of an anti-white, anti-Indian, anti-elitist, anti-communist, anti-imperialist and chauvinist agenda which increasingly made him major enemies within the "tripartite alliance" of the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP.
Malema, who claimed to represent the interests of the unemployed and marginalised African millions, gravitated to an interpretation of ANC history which saw the contemporary ANCYL replaying the role of the Mandela/Tambo ANCYL of the late 1940s which had overthrown a conservative leadership and led the ANC into a period of mass action.
This increasingly cast Zuma as a villain, a false hero who had disappointed voters by failing to implement a radical nationalist political and economic agenda. The conclusion was that Zuma - and those around him, notably the ANC's secretary-general Gwede Mantashe - would have to be replaced by candidates who would commit to Malema’s programme; this would happen at the ANC next conference at Mangaung in December 2012.
In all this, Malema fatally mistook Zuma’s form for substance. Zuma’s style of governance is thoroughly unlike that of Mbeki - a centralist moderniser, who ruled his cabinet with authority and brooked no dissent.
By contrast, Zuma has espoused a reconciliatory role whose principal concern is to appease all elements in the very disparate coalition which brought him to power. This has had the merits of allowing an overall competent economics and financial core to maintain reasonable control over the economy during an era of immense global turbulence. The downside is that, across many ministries, inefficiency, mediocrity and downright predation and plunder have been permitted to flourish; a succession of financial scandals has resulted.
At the centre, the Zuma presidency has provided for a remarkable rise in the fortunes of "Zuma Inc", a cluster of firms associated with his friends and family. The financial interests of Zuma himself, and Zuma Inc, are an important factor motivating Zuma’s determination to secure a second five-year presidency of the ANC from 2012 and of South Africa via a fifth general election in 2013.
So when Malema transformed from supporter to political threat, Zuma prepared to pounce. For a man who had risen to the head of ANC intelligence in exile, this was child’s play. All he needed to do was wait, as successively Malema embarrassed the ANC by embracing Robert Mugabe’s land and indigenisation polices; hailed Muammar Gaddafi; and declared the Botswana government to be in bed with United States imperialism.
The short step to filing charges was made easier by the ANCYL leadership's stunts, such as invading an official meeting of the mother body’s senior office-leaders. The mobilisation of unruly supporters in the streets of Johannesburg outside the ANC’s Luthuli House during the early days of the disciplinary hearing also did little to help the Youth League leaders’ cause.
So what does Julius Malema’s political demise mean for the ANC and South Africa? Four conclusions suggest themselves.
First, Jacob Zuma will sail on to a second presidency. Those touted by the Youth League as an alternative option, notably deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, have a clearer sense of Zuma's real political abilities and no stomach to challenge him.
Second, Zuma will maintain his multidirectional balancing-act: mollycoddling diverse constituencies, promising employment-generating policies, maintaining broadly conservative economic policies, alternately punishing and tolerating corruption according to political interests.
Third, the ANC under Zuma will proceed to a repeat election victory in 2013 after a year of celebration of the party’s centenary in 2012. It is possible this will shore up its perceptibly eroding vote at the cost of its inattention to issues which are steadily undermining its longevity: corruption, "tenderpreneurship", and resulting incapacity to address collective needs (especially at provincial and local-government level).
Fourth, the ANCYL will doubtless regroup around another leader. Even if Malema's sentence is reduced on appeal, he will be unable to play an overt role in the party prior to Mangaung. His choice will be to buckle down in the hope of long-term rehabilitation or take the major risk of launching out politically on his own. But the latter option would require major financial and political backers; at present there are few either free of ties to the Zuma state or prepared to place their money on such an unpredictable horse.
It could get worse before it gets better for Malema. He has already acquired improbable levels of wealth - and the withdrawal of Zuma’s political protection has provided space for various anti-corruption agencies to probe the dubious routes to this enrichment, which include apparently manipulating the award of contracts in his home province in Limpopo. Zuma’s message to the ANC has become brutally clear: plunder if you will, but if you cross me politically, expect no mercy.