|The Youth League plan to march in Johannesburg on Friday in a campaign against youth unemployment [Reuters]
South Africa's ruling African National Council (ANC) has said its youth leader Julius Malema has appealed his suspension from the party, setting the stage for a protracted battle ahead of the party's leadership conference.
"[ANC secretary general] Gwede Mantashe has received the documents for the appeal," the party said in a statement released on Friday.
Malema was slapped with a five-year suspension two weeks ago when he was convicted of provoking divisions within the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela that has been in power since 1994.
Malema will remain the Youth League leader until he exhausts his appeals, a process that could drag on for months.
His case could ultimately end up before the ANC's leadership conference in Bloemfontein in December 2012, when President Jacob Zuma will seek endorsement as the party's candidate in the next national elections.
ANC spokesman Keith Khoza said the appeals panel could begin its work from next week.
Malema, 30, has refused to quietly bow out, travelling to Bloemfontein to rally his supporters ahead of the party's national executive committee meeting.
He has accused the ruling party of leading a witch hunt against him to silence his calls to nationalise mines and seize white-owned land to redistribute.
"We are going to be suspended. We do not care. We are not about to be sell outs. We are ready for anything," Malema told his supporters.
Malema became president of the Youth League three years ago and quickly emerged as a key ally for Zuma, who orchestrated the party's removal former president Thabo Mbeki as leader and then won national elections in 2009.
But since then, Malema's allegiances shifted and he began praising Mbeki as a better leader than Zuma, remarks that resulted in one of his convictions by the party.
He was also convicted of disrupting a national ANC meeting, and of bringing the party into disrepute by calling for "regime change" in democratic Botswana.
Youth League spokesman Floyd Shivambu was also suspended for three years for bringing the party into disrepute with the Botswana statements as well as for swearing at a journalist.
Four other top Youth League officials were found guilty on various charges, but were granted suspended sentences.
His appeal means the divisions within the ANC will remain bitter as the former liberation movement celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, amid internal jockeying for the party's top spot at the leadership conference.
Despite the in-fighting and a raft of corruption investigations, the ANC is still revered for leading the struggle against white-minority apartheid rule.
Its hefty majority in parliament ensures that the ANC leader will become the country's next president, despite recent gains by the opposition.
Steven Friedman, political analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Africa, said Malema had become a proxy in the party's leadership battle.
"He's actually a rather unimportant political figure. The factions who use him are very important and they find him useful. And he's going to be important only as long as they find him useful," Friedman said.
"But as long they continue, as they seem to do now, to think that he's worth protecting... you're going to have a constant battle within the ANC."