* His ANC career is on the rocks after suspension upheld
* But he could remain a political figure to watch
* Malema reminded ANC that needs of poor have not been met
* He rattled investors with calls for mines nationalisation
JOHANNESBURG, Feb 4 (Reuters) - In less than four years, ANC youth leader Julius Malema turned himself into an outspoken irritant for South Africa's ruling party as he regularly and pointedly reminded its leaders how they had failed the country's poor majority.
On Saturday, after an African National Congress appeals panel upheld his suspension for bringing Africa's oldest liberation movement into disrepute, the banishment of the youthful rebel from party ranks seemed complete.
The panel nevertheless decided to allow Malema and fellow suspended ANC Youth League colleagues an additional hearing to argue for a lighter penalty than his five-year suspension.
A speedier return to the party may not salvage his ANC career, but some believe he could remain a player in South Africa's political scene, ahead of a key ANC leadership conference due at the end of this year.
"Julius Malema will be back. He has political skills and instincts second to none. He has a long career ahead of him. It might feel like a big setback now, but he will be back," said Nic Borain, an independent political analyst.
Malema, 30, had stamped his presence on South Africa's political life with his mocking criticism of President Jacob Zuma and his scathing reminders that the masses have yet to feel the full economic benefits of the end of apartheid 18 years ago.
Adding to his notoriety, his repeated calls to nationalise South Africa's giant gold and platinum mines rattled investors and he stirred racial tensions by calling for a seizure of white-owned farm lands.
In a relatively short time, he became one of the country's most influential and controversial politicians, whose support could boost candidates in the fractious party. He was seen as a potential kingmaker.
Branded a demagogue, a reckless populist and even a future leader of Africa's biggest economy. But to many in South Africa, he was simply known by his nickname "Juju".
Malema's militant speeches resonated with South Africa's unemployed black youths, many facing a bleak future.
Supporters praised him for "speaking truth" when he repeatedly flayed Zuma's government for failing to deliver on the ANC's promise to give "a better life for all" when it took power in 1994 after decades of white-minority rule.
SON OF A MAID
Born into poverty as the son of a domestic worker employed by an Indian family in Limpopo, north of Johannesburg, Malema became politically active from an early age.
He rose through the ranks to become president in 2008 of the ANC Youth League, founded decades before by political giants including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.
Malema and a group of other power brokers ousted then President Thabo Mbkei in late 2007 from his leadership of the party and replaced him with Zuma, who became the country's president a little over a year later.
Malema declared at the time he was ready to kill for Zuma.
The two later fell out, and Zuma's foes wooed Malema whose supporters were young blacks, half of whom are jobless. A study by the South African Institute of Race Relations has said about half of people now aged 25-34 would never find work.
Overall unemployment in South Africa is officially about 25 percent. Millions still live in squalid shack settlements clustered around big cities.
Despite his age, Malema proved himself a shrewd political operator, using poverty and the plight of the youth to build a powerbase that was often at odds with the official party line.
"With carefree abandon he knowingly gave the finger to the project of non-racialism, rubbished the notion of a Rainbow Nation and challenged the goals of the transition," journalist Fiona Forde wrote in a recent book on Malema.
"He was a political entrepreneur operating in an environment of ample opportunity."
SUSHI AND CHAMPAGNE
A flamboyant lifestyle, including expensive watches and champagne parties, further drew poor youths to him.
The newspaper City Press, in an article last year vetted by a judge before publication, said Malema had a slush fund for bribes used to finance his lavish living. He has denied any wrongdoing, and faces a criminal probe into his finances.
But it was his outspoken comments and criticism of ANC leaders, including Zuma, that landed him in the hottest water.
Even with a suspension hanging over him since late last year, an apparently unrepentant Malema had continued to attack Zuma - portraying him as "the shower man" in a mocking reference to widely criticised statement by the president that he had showered after having sex with an HIV-infected woman.
Malema had been defending his actions in front of a party disciplinary panel since late August but failed to convince party officials of his innocence.
The ANC disciplinary panel said in its November suspension decision that Malema had fostered divisions in the ANC and that he had brought the party into disrepute for calling for the overthrow of the elected government of neighbouring Botswana.
Malema's appeal hearings were risky for both Zuma - who hopes to win a second term as ANC leader in December - and Malema, who had come out in support of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe for the country's top job.
But while thousands of enthusiastic supporters turned out to back the youthful rebel late last year, only a few dozen were outside ANC headquarters for the appeals hearing on Saturday.
"Who rules the world? Juju! Juju!," they chanted.
The low turnout suggested his political crown within the ANC may have slipped - for the moment at least. (Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Louise Ireland)