JOHANNESBURG — A South African youth leader who has stirred furious debate over race relations and economic policy is guilty of serious discipline violations, but will get a chance to argue against a possibly career-ending suspension from the country's governing party, party officials said Saturday.
The disciplinary committee of the African National Congress had handed Julius Malema a five-year suspension in November, saying that the 30-year-old had sown intolerance and disunity within the party.
An ANC appeals body on Saturday upheld that ruling, but said that Malema should get another hearing on his punishment to make absolutely sure that the highly watched process was seen as fair. A Malema aide indicated later Saturday that he would pursue that opportunity.
While Saturday's decision appears to give Malema another chance, it was clear key party leaders have concluded that he is fatally divisive. The committee upheld the more serious verdicts against Malema, and said questions that he had raised in an attempt to have his verdicts overturned were "ridiculous" and "absurd."
In a statement read by its chairman Cyril Ramaphosa, a prominent ANC leader and businessman, the appeals committee said Saturday that "discipline is one of the pillars that has helped sustain the ANC over the past 100 years and will be fundamental in determining the future of the ANC and South Africa."
Saturday's ruling was unanimous. Other appeals body members who appeared with Ramaphosa on Saturday included Justice Minister Jeff Radebe and Trevor Manuel, a respected former finance minister. No members of the committee answered reporters' questions Saturday, saying that would be improper because the case has not yet been finalized.
The appeals body set a tough challenge for Malema, putting his sentencing hearings back in the hands of the committee that originally decided he was guilty and punished him.
The ANC's Youth League has portrayed itself as the voice of South Africa's poor, young majority and the early stages of Malema's disciplinary hearings had seen protests by his supporters. But few protesters were outside party headquarters where Saturday's decision was read.
An appearance that had been expected later Saturday with Malema and key supporter Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was canceled, but local media said youth league figures had a private meeting with her.
Malema's youth wing is known for getting voters to the polls and using its weight to choose party leaders. Malema is credited with helping President Jacob Zuma come to power in 2009.
The ANC, which marks its 100th anniversary this year, has won every national election in South Africa, and most provincial and local votes since apartheid ended in 1994.
Since 1994, Malema has questioned Zuma's leadership, one of the reasons he was initially hauled before the disciplinary committee. He was found guilty on charges related to comments about Zuma and about the government's support for the government of neighboring Botswana, which the ANC Youth League had labeled imperialist.
The charges concerned relatively narrow issues, compared to the broader debates Malema has sparked. Critics say Malema has drawn too much negative publicity to the party through his racially divisive remarks.
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 a court order banning it.
He also has repeatedly defied more senior party leaders by arguing the country's mines should be nationalized, and land forcibly seized from whites and given to blacks.