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Oh, Juju, baby! It’s gonna be cold outside

After years of taunting with impunity its elders in the African National Congress, the Youth League has discovered that president-baiting can be a dangerous sport. Their protracted tussle with the ANC establishment, embodied in its disciplinary committee, this week ended with them dazed, bloodied and effectively booted from the pack.

Firebrand ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was handed a five-year suspension which, because of a previous deferred two-year suspension, means he is immediately out on his ear, deprived at a stroke of the power and patronage of office. Floyd Shivambu, the league’s spokesperson described by the disciplinary committee as “defiant, arrogant, and ill-disciplined” was suspended with similarly immediate effect for three years. Four other executive members were suspended for two years, with the sanctions held over for three years.

President Jacob Zuma, the man many dismiss as toothless and timid, proved yet again what a canny political operator he is. The timing of events is impeccable, with just a year to go to the Mangaung conference. That is where Zuma’s rivals had hoped for league backing to give Zuma a Polokwane-style klap. But Zuma will now almost certainly be handed a second term.

Zuma’s revenge has been long in the brewing and punctilious in execution. The closely argued public judgment of the disciplinary committee — which had been procedurally meticulous in the face of the many delays and distractions that Malema had engineered along the way — has been crafted to minimise any likelihood of the appeal succeeding.

For a governing party that has been riddled with division and perceived to be wallowing without direction, the judgment comes at a critical moment. Next year is important not only because of the leadership conference, but is also because it is the ANC centenary, for which a series of events are planned to run throughout the year for maximum propaganda advantage.

For many members and supporters of an organisation that once prided itself on its democratic and human rights credentials, it has been embarrassing to have the crudely abusive Malema presiding over the league, promising to kill the boer, seize the land, and topple friendly neighbouring governments. So it is something of an incongruity in a judgment that goes to lengths to assert the values of the “old” ANC, that while they found Malema “reckless, irresponsible and ill-disciplined”, they acquitted him of the charge of racism, after he labelled whites as criminals who had stolen the land from blacks.

The conclusion that will be drawn by many is that the ANC doesn’t actually believe calling whites criminals is racist. But that would be too simplistic. Despite its blatant offensiveness and being an obvious contravention of the ANC’s non-racial charter, this was the charge most vulnerable to being overturned on appeal.

For Malema’s racially and gender-tinged abuse extends way beyond this single incident and over the past few years has encompassed slurs against whites, Indians, women, and black opposition parliamentarians. We’ve had cockroaches, tea girls and baboon epithets from Malema and none — even when uttered on a rally platform with Zuma at his side — has drawn a rebuke, never mind a disciplinary charge.

To have now convicted Malema, given this history, would have been laughable. The public would have drawn the conclusion, entirely accurate, that the only thing difference between acceptable and unacceptable outbursts of racism, is whether the perpetrator is supporting the president or trying to unseat him.

Malema’s biggest mistake was confusing tolerance with carte blanche. His outrageous behaviour had been indulged because Zuma had to keep the league onside. When he made it clear that he wanted to unseat Zuma, Malema’s immunity evaporated in an instant and his arrogance became the tool of his own downfall.

It is striking how overconfident Malema had become. To the charge of causing division in the ANC — always more important to the party than sowing racism in the nation — Malema’s defence was non-existent. There was no attempt at explanation, writes the committee, “save for a bald denial that he was having a ‘dig’ at President Zuma”.

To the second charge, of bringing the ANC into disrepute by establishing a “command team” to rid Africa of the imperialist-puppet Botswana government, his response was equally perfunctory. Beyond admitting that he had uttered the words he was charged with, “the respondent did not provide any additional explanation”.

One must conclude that Malema entered the disciplinary hearing relatively untroubled. He thought the ANC would not dare discipline him and if it did, such discipline — in response to influential supporters like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — would amount to no more than a rebuke.

It was a monumental miscalculation. Not only were the young lions vanquished, but also the league’s power within the party will be diminished in future.

The committee rejected the argument that the league was “autonomous and therefore independent”, ruling that the league owed its existence to the ANC and “exists for the sole benefit of the ANC”. So, too, the committee dismissed the argument that those charged were somehow protected from disciplining in terms of the “historic militancy” of the league in relation to the party.

In its judgment the committee response lays down a marker for the future: “Ill-discipline, in the guise of militancy and robust expression, cannot exempt any member from being sanctioned nor can it be a licence for reckless conduct.”

The league has put a brave face on it. Everyone will appeal and according to an league statement it has already formally registered its “outrage” that the charged members were “deprived of the their fundamental right to present mitigating circumstances”.

The truth is, they have been comprehensively outgunned. While the pressures bubbling among the unemployed and poor will be no less tomorrow — and the government will be not the slightest more capable of delivery — the dangerous, polarising and innately fascist populism of the league has had its sting drawn. For now.

And the corrupt circle of tenderpreneurship and of political influence auctioned to the highest bidder has been interrupted. For now.

Juju will find that outside the warm circle of the ANC protection and indulgence, there is a harsh world. And the Hawks are just one set of predators circling him.