* Latest measures against Malema escalate party infighting
* Last week Malema called Zuma government a ‘dictatorship’
* Malema’s future crucial in the run for ANC leadership (Adds details, quotes, byline)
By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG, April 4 (Reuters) - South Africa’s ruling ANC said on Wednesday it had temporarily removed party rebel Julius Malema from his role as president of its Youth League and was barring him from attending party meetings.
The move escalates rare public infighting at the country’s most powerful party, punishing Malema days after he had called President Jacob Zuma’s government a “dictatorship”.
“The temporary and immediate suspension of comrade Malema will come into effect on Wednesday, 4 April,” an ANC disciplinary panel said in a statement.
The African National Congress had already expelled Malema from its ranks for breaking party rules but, pending an appeal, had allowed him to stay in his post, address ANC rallies and attend meetings.
If Malema loses his appeal, he will be definitively expelled from the party. He is scheduled to have an appeal hearing next week.
Malema, a skilled public speaker and a populist whose calls for the nationalisation of mines in the resource-rich country have unnerved investors, has stepped up his criticism of Zuma. He also advocates seizing white-owned farmland as part of his vision for Africa’s biggest economy.
On Tuesday, the ANC’s top brass was united in chastising Malema for his “dictatorship” comment, which Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe called “crude”, “disrespectful”, “incomprehensible” and “insulting”.
If Malema is definitively expelled, Zuma would have a clear path to win a second term as ANC leader in party elections later this year. The leader of the ANC is virtually assured of victory in presidential elections in 2014 given the party’s dominance in South African politics.
At 31, Malema is considered too young to directly challenge Zuma for leadership but his populist strength makes him a party power broker.
The verbal sparring is unusual for the ANC, which has ruled since the end of the white-minority apartheid government in 1994 and turned 100 this year.
The former liberation movement strives to keep its internal rifts private and punishes those who speak out against the party or its members.
Malema was originally found guilty of sowing divisions in the ANC and hurting the party’s reputation by calling for the overthrow of the elected government of neighbouring Botswana.
Even if Malema is removed, analysts say the ANC will still face criticism that it is not doing enough to help the country’s poor black majority and is turning a blind eye to corruption that is eating away at welfare spending. (Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)