REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Julius Malema, the controversial leader of South Africa's ruling party youth league, compared himself Wednesday to the country's first black president, Nelson Mandela, and the party's disciplinary committee to apartheid-era justice.
Malema, who was suspended last week by the committee for five years for creating divisions, said he would not abide by its ruling to step down as African National Congress Youth League president.
"I am not vacating any office. I'm the president of the youth league. ... Resigning is not an option. I must be fired," Malema said at a news conference.
Malema plans to appeal his suspension, saying the committee and senior party members had decided to punish him before hearings even took place. He said the committee's refusal to let him present mitigating evidence made it worse than the apartheid-era justice system, which imprisoned Mandela for 27 years for treason.
Malema said the hearing was politically motivated. Analysts say his suspension sidelines him in the run-up to next year's leadership vote at a party conference. Malema was widely seen as a front man for an ANC faction plotting to oust South African President Jacob Zuma.
Malema said: "Only the willfully blind can believe that this matter is purely about discipline and not intended to settle political scores and stifle debate."
Although Malema's suspension was unexpectedly tough, his outspoken comments at Wednesday's news conference could undermine his chances of seeing the sentence softened on appeal.
The party's national executive committee, which decides the appeal, includes senior party members, some of them Malema supporters, but many other senior government members whom he has publicly attacked or criticized. Some of them are fed up with Malema's calls to nationalize mines and banks, which have spooked investors and were seen as damaging to the economy.
Malema vowed he would not leave the ANC to join or form an opposition party, a potential fast-track to a return to politics.
"I don't need a card to be ANC," he said. "I am born African National Congress. I will die African National Congress."
He said it was important that the youth league be allowed to express its militant views.
"Let it be made clear, I will never lead an organization that is toothless, that can't say anything, whose role will be to take water to the elders," he said. "We are a radical militant organization with a voice that started in 1944."
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Suspended ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, left, and his secretary-general, Sindiso Magaqa, attend a media briefing in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday. Credit: Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters