* Appeal appears to have been final option
* Malema popular among young party members
* ANC appear to leave open Malema’s eventual return (Adds comment from ANC statement)
JOHANNESBURG, April 24 (Reuters) - South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) rejected an appeal from political rebel Julius Malema on Tuesday, cementing his expulsion from the party and President Jacob Zuma’s re-election prospects for 2014.
Malema, a vocal Zuma opponent and leader of the party’s powerful youth wing, appears to have exhausted all his options after months of appeals since a disciplinary charge last year.
The ANC’s disciplinary appeals committee said in a statement it had dismissed Malema’s latest petition, confirming an earlier decision to expel him from the party.
Two of Malema’s allies in the ANC Youth League also lost similar appeals, but were suspended from the party, not expelled.
The ANC said in a separate statement it had been a “difficult and painful decision” to subject Malema to discipline.
Despite the seemingly harsh punishment, the party appeared to leave the open the possibility of his eventual return.
“Many of those who have been subjected to the same process and sanction have in turn learnt from their mistakes and have become better members,” the ANC said.
“We believe the same is possible for... Julius Malema.”
Malema, one of the best orators in the ANC, has won wide popularity among poor South African youth with his calls for nationalisation of mines and seizure of white-owned land.
He was suspended from the ANC last year for sowing division in the party, but was allowed to stay in his post pending the outcome of his appeals.
Following the charges, Malema ratcheted up his criticism of Zuma and even mocked him at public rallies. The ANC retaliated by turning its original sentence of a five-year suspension into expulsion.
Although not an elected official, Malema was seen as something of a king-maker within the party given his large support base among young people, as well as the youth league’s reputation as a training ground for future leaders. (Reporting by David Dolan; Editing by Michael Roddy)