JOHANNESBURG President Jacob Zuma may be closer to a second term in office after the ruling ANC banished his firebrand foe Julius Malema from the party, but the decision could also backfire and spark violent protests from South Africa's disenchanted poor.
Malema, president of the ANC's militant youth wing, was the biggest obstacle to Zuma winning the party endorsement in December next year to lead the ANC -- and by implication the country -- for another five years.
Malema is a party power broker who has been courted by Zuma's foes as they line up their bids for leadership.
Considered too young now to join the government in a senior role, Malema could later line up his bid to take the reins of the ANC from those he is helping propel to the top ranks.
The five-year suspension handed down by a party disciplinary panel on Thursday, pending appeal, will cut the 30-year-old populist leader out of ANC politics, making it easier for Zuma to gather support for a further term.
"It has to be viewed as a victory for Jacob Zuma... It looks good for Zuma," independent political analyst Nic Borain said.
The Youth League was instrumental in bringing Zuma to power but now backs Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe for South Africa's top job.
"IMPORTANT POINT PERSON"
"Given that Malema was seen as an important point person for political factions within the ANC that have been looking to insert a more radical set of policies around land reform and state intervention in the mining sector, as well as a lightning rod for an anti-Zuma campaign, it is likely to be viewed as an important strengthening of President Zuma." said Jeff Gable, Chief Economist at Absa Capital.
Malema's strident calls to nationalize the giant gold and platinum mines have rattled investors and whites have been unnerved by his demands for land seizures.
His populist and militant speeches have lured hundreds of thousands of poor, unemployed black youths, many facing a bleak future, into his camp.
Even if Malema is out of politics for now, the issues that rallied the masses behind him will create further headaches for Zuma.
"Whatever they do with Malema, the big issues he has raised, and what he represents, won't go away," Christie Viljoen, an economist at NKC Independent Economists, said.
"The poverty, the inequalities and the unemployment continue."
Millions of poor blacks still live in squalid shack settlements clustered around big cities in a country where overall unemployment officially is around 25 percent.
Youth unemployment is about 50 percent, and a recent study by the South African Institute of Race Relations said about half of people now aged 25-34 would never find work.
The festering anger in the black townships over poverty and unemployment could spill over into protests which could turn violent.
"The risk, particularly for the next five or six weeks as this decision is being bedded down, is that Malema's only option outside of a formal appeal, or sitting out his sentence, is to take it to the streets," Borain said.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Michael Roddy)