Julius Malema's disciplinary hearing probably means a lot to him and to his ever-admiring fans in the media. It is likely to mean little or nothing to the ANC.
To see why this is so, we need to understand what is really happening within the ANC and where Malema fits in.
The standard view among commentators and journalists is that a powerful and popular Youth League leader is challenging the president and that the outcome of the hearing may play an important role in deciding Jacob Zuma’s future and that of the governing party. This largely misses the point.
Malema is neither powerful nor popular. He owes his position not to massive support but to the fact that he is useful to one of the factions who are contesting for power in the ANC – the ‘nationalist’ or ‘populist’ group. He is challenging the president because senior ANC members think it is useful to their faction that he does this.
This does not mean they plan to support a candidate for president next year. But they do think it useful to test the water – the Youth League’s interest in Kgalema Motlanthe as Zuma’s challenger helps them to do this. If Zuma is opposed at Mangaung next year it will not be because Malema decided this, but because those senior figures who find him useful decide it.
The illusion of power is created because he is useful to the faction to which he belongs and so its leaders protect him. He has so far escaped discipline not because a unified ANC leadership is frightened of him, but because a very divided leadership includes figures who are powerful enough to defend him whenever he lands in trouble.
It is was they, for example, who ensured that he was not disciplined for storming the stage at the ANC national general council meeting in 2010 when he objected to something minister Jeff Radebe said.
Malema is useful to the ‘nationalist’ faction, but he is not indispensable to it: if he were to disappear from the scene, its leaders would find someone else – probably from within the Youth League leadership – to play the same role. And so, whenever he faces disciplinary action, his fate depends on whether the senior leaders of the ‘nationalist’ faction are willing to continue defending him. If they ever decided not to, he would probably be suspended or expelled.
What does all this say about the disciplinary process? Whatever is decided by the disciplinary committee is not the last word – if Malema is found guilty, there are further appeal processes and he and his lawyers can, if they wish, take this all the way to the next national conference at Mangaung.
His fate will depend on a political process within the ANC. At any of the stages in this process, even if he is found guilty and expelled by the disciplinary committee, his patrons in the leadership can intervene to protect him.
The same, of course, can be said about the charges against the other Youth League executive members.
Partly because of the continuing love affair between Malema and the media, and partly because the other league leaders have not been charged before and so have no suspended sentence over their head, this has been relegated to a sideshow.
If convicted it seems unlikely they will be removed from their posts. It seems highly likely that if the league’s senior protectors do decide to protect Malema and – if necessary – his colleagues, they will remain in their posts.
No-one in the ANC can be sure right now whether the nationalists or their opponents have majority support and so the factions won’t take each other on now. So, if the nationalist leaders protect Malema again, it is likely that their opponents will not risk all by trying to remove him.
All this explains why the outcome will not affect the ANC. If the process ends with Malema remaining in his post, this will no doubt be hailed as another sign that he is immensely powerful. In reality, all it will mean is that nothing has changed in the ANC’s factional battle.
As in the past, because neither Malema’s protectors nor their opponents know who would win a showdown, if the nationalists are determined to protect him , their opponents will have to accept that.
If he is suspended or expelled, this does not mean the nationalists have suffered a setback. This analysis suggests that it would simply mean that they had decided that Malema had become too much of a problem and that it is not worth protecting him.
In that case, we can be certain that they would find someone else to play the same role. Much the same things would be said and done for much the same reasons and on behalf of the same leaders. Only the name of the person doing and saying them would change.
So, whatever Malema’s fate and that of his colleagues, the realities of life in the ANC will remain. It will still be an organisation divided by competition between factions in which none feel strong enough to impose their will on the others.
This will last until Mangaung next year but quite probably for the five years after it too. It will continue in much the same way whether or not Malema and the executive members stay in their posts.
Once again, therefore, the fixation on Malema is a distraction from the real story, the battle among senior leaders for the future of the ANC.
If we want to understand where the majority party is going, we need to look more at the real action, less at the sideshow.
Prof Steven Friedman is director, Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University/University of Johannesburg<