(File image) Julius Malema. Photo: Dumisani Sibeko

No one could shrivel the sensitive nostril quite like Julius Malema could and a whole anthology of foul imagery and utterances now survives the four or so years since the scrofulous character entered South African politics, never to be forgotten.

“He was up there with Hitler and Reagan in the pantheon of fascinating villains,” as author Rian Malan put it to me this week. “And his demise is an incalculable tragedy for hacks.”

For all of us, Malema was a hot topic, a colourful subject whose iron nerve and brass neck kept our nibs busy. He was bold and brutish, the king of the new mobocracy that was defining our politics and we kept him in our sight, often at the expense of the bigger and more gripping challenges that were tugging at SA.

“Because virtue is boring,” as Malan points out, a trait that was lost on the ANC junior. “He was so unguarded in saying the unspeakable that I often thought he was innocent. I can’t believe he is really dead. But maybe he isn’t.”

Maybe Malan is right, not on Malema’s suggested innocence but on the possibility that he has not yet departed our social and political orbit and that a version of the crisis he had come to represent is likely to repeat itself before too long.

I, for one, am still reluctant to write Malema’s political obituary on foot of the long-winded process of discipline that concluded this past week. Discipline? What has discipline really got to do with Malema’s demise, or with the ANC for that matter?

If one considers his behaviour since he entered national politics, Malema ought to have been expelled a long time ago if discipline was really the driving force, yet his surrogate parents looked the other way in his early years.

This time two years ago, Malema was courting Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in Harare and promising to breathe life back into Zanu-PF in a way that would have throttled the fragile unity government, but the party turned a blind eye.

A few days later he behaved like a tyrant when he threw a journalist out of Luthuli House in a phenomenal fit of temper followed by the now infamous words “you bloody agent. Bastard. Get out”, but the party chiefs had little to say about the incident and left him to his own devices, in the same way they did when he took to singing the old and controversial struggle song Dubul’ iBhunu (Shoot the Boer), a dirty relic from another era.

The only reason good enough for the ANC to finally “discipline” Malema two years ago was because he compared President Jacob Zuma to his nemesis, Thabo Mbeki.

What was really so awful about that?

This time last year Malema was sharing a platform with party president Zuma in Kimberley when he argued that “whites” were “criminals” for “stealing” the land and ought to be treated as such, in my view a far more serious offence than threatening to set the South African youth on the Botswana government, which was one of the charges that eventually led to Malema’s expulsion this past Tuesday. Yet no mention was made of Malema’s incitement to racial antagonism at the time. So why was the ANC so keen to invoke the rules and guidelines set down in its own constitution now and not then?

I cannot find fault with the reasoning on the part of the National Disciplinary Committee (NDC) or the National Disciplinary Committee of Appeal (NDCA). Malema gave them sufficient grounds to eventually argue that he did not “show any remorse or respect for the ANC constitution and its structures” and was not “capable of rehabilitation”.

It’s a finding that fits him. Ever since Malema was initially handed a five-year suspension last November he has shown such antipathy towards the ANC that it is hard to believe he ever wanted to call it his political home.

The problem I have with the NDC is the selective manner in which it exercises its brief or how it defines “discipline”.

According to point 25.5 of the ANC’s constitution, which was signed off by the current leadership at the Polokwane conference in 2007, if one of its members or a member who holds a public office misbehaves, then he or she may face the wrath of the disciplinary team.

The constitution then goes on to define what constitutes misbehaviour and the list, by the way, is quite long and detailed. Go look it up, it’s on the ANC’s website and it’s well worth the read.

But in brief, and for the purposes of the point I want to make, misconduct is defined in the following ways: a court conviction that leads to a term of imprisonment; sowing division within the party; sexism, racism and political intolerance; engaging in sexual or physical abuse of women or children; abuse of public office; accepting kickbacks or behaving corruptly; engaging in party factionalism; trampling on free debate within the party; violating the party’s constitution; joining a political party that is not the ANC or in alliance with it; and throwing money at party structures to try and influence the outcome of a party election.

Well, I ask you. I couldn’t count on one hand, let alone two, the number of offenders that immediately come to mind when I read through the list, some of which are even too sensitive to mention.

But did Tony Yengeni not serve prison time, yet stay on as a party member?

Did Zuma and hundreds of others not engage in factionalism when they challenged Mbeki for the leadership five years ago?

How politically tolerant was Zuma of his predecessor when he referred to him as a “dead snake”?

Why was Malema not taken to task for similar intolerance when he used the loaded and hateful term “cockroach” for Helen Zille?

Why did Gwede Mantashe not entertain allegations of vote rigging in the youth league a couple of years ago? Is the current leadership not guilty of stifling free debate within the party by killing all talk around the leadership race?

Consider the gentle fate of the former Corporate Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka, who was found guilty of abusing office. He not only managed to retain his party membership, but his place as an MP as well and the salary that goes with it.

How many of those clauses above would apply to Richard Mdluli if the recent coverage about his behaviour while in office stands up?

And misbehaviour is not the sole basis for violating the party’s constitution? I’m led to believe that some party seniors have flagged concerns about a handful of elected members of the National Executive Committee holding on to their senior provincial positions, contrary to what the ANC constitution states in Section 12.8.

In the past week or so, Mantashe has been asked to explain why recently re-elected Mpumalanga chairperson David Mabuza, who is also an elected NEC member, is still wearing both hats, and if Ace Magashule and Zweli Mkhize will do so too if they are re-elected as provincial chairmen in the coming while.

It may not seem like much to you or me, but the senior leader who has flagged this one is asking for consistency across the board, rather than a selective use of the constitution when it suits a particular person or agenda.

Now that’s a tricky one, because if the constitution is to be applied to each member “in good standing”, then how many party seniors (or juniors) are guilty of corruption?

Consider for a moment the investigations that have been carried out into Malema’s money affairs these past few years by the media and others. The evidence is so staggering and is stacked so high against Malema that at this stage it’s hard to consider him as anything other than grossly guilty until proven innocent.

And yet the ANC neatly avoided the matter when they took Malema to task, with the NDCA going so far as to tell him his “understanding of the ANC constitution is fundamentally flawed”.

If the ANC constitution is so explicit about discipline, then why is the application of it so flawed? Truth to tell, the members of the ANC right across the board are so heavily compromised by corruption, political wrecklessness and abuse of office, both public and private, that a fair application of their own rules and procedures would bring their entire house down.

Imagine a room full of individuals with each one holding a gun to the next person’s head, then imagine the ANC.

Then forget the notion that Malema has been sidelined for the good of the organisation and in the name of discipline. Or that he was alone in his misdemeanors. He had simply become a scratch on the mind of the current leadership and in the year that’s in it, an election year, they had to bring him down.

It’s good political discipline, rather than Malema, that’s really dead and gone. As that lovely saying of Oscar Wilde’s goes, “hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue”.

• Forde is the author of An Inconvenient Youth: Julius Malema and the ‘new’ ANC