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South Africa's Zuma goes soft on Malema. Is he losing control of the ANC?

Days after threatening 'consequences' for misbehavior within the ruling African National Congress party, President Jacob Zuma now seems to be going soft on Julius Malema, the leader of the vaunted party's youth league.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / April 20, 2010

South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, shown during the BRIC - IBAS summit at Itamaraty Palace in Brasília, April 15. Zuma seems to have gone soft on African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema.

Eraldo Peres/AP

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Johannesburg, South Africa

Is South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, the kind of man who can be pushed around?

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Just days after rebuking Julius Malema, the outspoken leader of the ruling African National Congress’s Youth League, for dressing down a BBC journalist in racial terms, singing a racist protest song, and embracing the brutal land policies of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, President Zuma seems to have decided to let Mr. Malema off with a verbal warning.

Zuma’s call for “consequences” for misbehavior had raised expectations that perhaps Malema would be suspended for a time, or even expelled. But Zuma’s decision to be lenient is now being seen as a sign of weakness and loss of control of his own ruling party.

“This decision is very significant, because after this, others will smell blood, and it will be Jacob Zuma’s blood that they smell,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a former ANC member and now a political analyst for the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. “In a battle like this, someone is going to be weakened, and with resources diverted to this battle, someone is going to be damaged. Zuma is not as strong as he was at this time last year.”

Tough timing

There’s never a good time to have a bruising public battle for political power, but two months before hosting the World Cup soccer tournament – with an estimated 450,000 fans expected to attend – makes for lousy timing.

The problem is that the political divisions within the ANC -- from labor unionists to communists to free-market capitalists to black-power militants – have never been settled. Experts say that even a gifted conciliator like Zuma has been unable to paper over the deep divisions.

At a press conference this afternoon in Johannesburg, ANC Deputy Secretary-General Thandi Modise told reporters that there were no current charges placed against Malema, and if there were, such matters would not be discussed in front of the news media.

"A disciplinary committee will investigate and decide whether charges would be brought against Julius Malema, and if so, what charges," said Ms. Modise. "In this regard, we would like to restate that issues of discipline in the ANC belong to the structures of the ANC and are therefore not matters of the public or the media. ANC officials will discuss issues of discipline of all members internally and will not engage on internal matters with the media."

A public affair

That said, internal matters have a way of coming out into the open.

Last week, Zuma took the unusual step of using his weekly letter to the nation to castigate Malema, although not by name. “Matters relating to the conduct and statements of the ANC Youth League which are totally alien to the culture of the ANC have made it necessary for us to emphasize a few fundamental principles today,” Zuma wrote.

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