The future of the youth league hangs in the balance, with Zuma announcing in his closing speech at the party's elective conference in Mangaung on Thursday that "the matter of the league" would be discussed by the incoming NEC in the new year. The ANC president also lashed out at his detractors aligned to Malema, as well as those who supported him within the party.
This follows reports that there were calls by some provinces to dissolve the league following the defiance it showed to Zuma in the run-up to the conference and its attempt to have him unseated.
Zuma, who pulled off a convincing victory over the pro-change lobby that tried to replace him with his then deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, never mentioned Malema by name but referenced the firebrand's actions at several moments.
The amount of time devoted to the issue during his closing address was indicative of the level of concern about the violent rhetoric that had come out of the party in recent years thanks to Malema and his ousted spokesperson Floyd Shivambu. There was a common call – to restore discipline and unity – among most of the delegates the Mail & Guardian spoke to.
And Zuma responded to the call decisively in his speech.
"Through cadre development and decisive action against indiscipline we will be able to root out all the tendencies that we have identified over the years," he said. "These include factionalism, sowing of disunity and confusion in the movement, the use of money to buy members and to buy positions or influence in the organisation, the hurling of insults or, even worse, the attacks of members on the ANC."
"We will be able to deal with the comrades who disrupt ANC meetings. And those who want the ANC to now be run on technicalities and through the court."
After months, and even years, of retiscence, Zuma has finally reacted to Malema's repeated provocations. Known for his strategic dealings with his opponents, he chose his moment well, using the party's biggest platform to make his point.
His remarks also referenced a faction in the Free State who had taken the party to court and was attempting to get the outcomes of the conference declared invalid. In a stern warning to his now neutered enemies, Zuma warned against "working with those who have been expelled from the organisation" and "assisting them to undermine the organisation", saying they should know the implications.
And with the opponents he was referencing effectively out in the cold, the implications were very clear.