|President Jacob Zuma's ability to seek a second term could depend on Malema's support [Reuters]
South Africa's governing African National Congress has suspended its youth leader for five years after finding him guilty of sowing division in the party and bringing it into disrepute by calling for regime change in Botswana.
The ruling against Julius Malema was delivered live on national television from central Johannesburg on Thursday.
Floyd Shivambu, the ANC's Youth League spokesman, was also suspended for three years over the Botswana statements as well as for swearing at a journalist, which the disciplinary hearing said had brought the party into disrepute.
Four other top Youth League officials were also found guilty on various charges, but were granted suspended sentences -allowing them retain their memberships unless they are convicted of a new offense.
Malema, who did not attend the announcement of the verdict, was found guilty of three of the four charges brought against him, said Derek Hanekom, who headed the disciplinary hearing.
'A bit of a surprise'
"The jury is still out regarding how this decision will impact the popularity of the current South African president. "
- David Monyae, political analyst
The firebrand youth leader was found guilty of disrupting a national ANC meeting, of bringing the party into disrepute by calling for regime change in democratic Botswana, and of provoking serious divisions within the party.
Malema was found not guilty of sowing racism or political intolerance.
"Ill-discipline is not a cure for frustration," Hanekom said. "Such disobedience undermined the effectiveness of the ANC."
Malema's conduct "would have a negative impact on international and inter-state relations, and would be prejudicial to South Africa as a whole," he added.
"In respects of the present disciplinary hearing, the respondent's membership is suspended for five years ... the respondent shall vacate his position as the president of the ANC Youth League."
Only a few of his supporters were outside ANC headquarters Thursday, and they showed little reaction to the ruling, contrasting with crowds who rioted when the disciplinary hearings against him began in August. Demonstrators had
burned ANC flags and T-shirts bearing Zuma's image.
David Monyae, a political analyst based in Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera that the stringent five year suspension came as a bit of a surprise.
"We were expecting it to be more like one or two years maximum ... also Malema is 30 years old and that means that by the time he comes back to the party, he will no longer be (classified as) youth, and will not be able to be part of the youth league.
Right to appeal
"As it stands, Mr. Malema has an opportunity to appeal first with the appeal commission of the party and if not successful, he also has a right to go to the National Executive Committee of the party "
- David Monyae, political analyst
Monyae said that the jury is still out regarding how this decision will impact the popularity of the current South African president, Jacob Zuma.
"It has opened up another bunch of issues. The party ran the court case well and have done their homework regarding the legal channels, however, they [seem to] have won the battle and lost the war, in terms of Malema supporters on the ground who are likely to give the president and the party a difficult time, as it decides on a number of key economic issues.
"As it stands, Mr. Malema has an opportunity to appeal first with the appeal commission of the party and if not successful, he also has a right to go to the National Executive Committee of the party," he said.
Malema has a large following in South Africa and some analysts say that Zuma's ability to seek a second term could depend on his support.
Last month, Malema led thousands through the streets of the economic capital Johannesburg, in support of calls he had made to nationalise South African mines and seize white-owned land.