When Julius Malema walked through the broken asphalt lane of the Stjwetla shanty town grabbing hands a few weeks ago, he looked to many people here as the answer to their shattered dreams of a new South Africa.

The dead-end street next to a graveyard, a few kilometres from the glittering business towers of Africa's richest city Sandton, stands as a stark example of the failure of the ruling African National Congress to improve the lives of the poor black majority, 17 years since ending apartheid rule.

The populist leader of the ANC's Youth League, Malema came carrying the message of radical change that had brought him to national prominence. But since then, the ANC has drummed him out of the party for bringing it into disrepute, probably derailing his career.

For many in Stjwetla, hopes for a better life have faded. Few believe the country's riches will ever come their way; Malema had offered a measure of comfort because a prominent figure let them know they had not been forgotten. Now, many say they are unsurprised by his fall.

Malema took our complaints. I had hope when he came, said Abraham, a Stjwetla resident who asked to be called by his first name. But politicians just go away, and I go on my way.

Malema will appeal his expulsion and keeps his post until the process is complete, which could take a few months.

But if his career is finished, analysts say the role he played as a firebrand politician who speaks to the country's desperate majority will be filled.

Malema and Youth League leaders spent the weekend plotting strategy. The Sunday Independent newspaper said they were looking at a series of marches to pile pressure on his political foe, President Jacob Zuma -- thought to have purged Malema to prevent a leadership challenge.

During Malema's rapid rise to prominence, political opponents accused him of taking advantage of the poor to build political might and win financial backing.

He rose from the slums to a lavish lifestyle that attracted criticism, spending nights at parties with bikini-clad waitresses serving sushi and champagne.

His calls to take over the country's mines and seize white-owned farm land rattled investors but also won him legions of support from the poor who envisioned him as a future leader.

Whatever the fate of the messenger, Malema's message is still as potent as ever, said South African Institute for Race Relations researcher Catherine Schulze.

It would be a mistake to interpret Mr. Malema's looming suspension as the end of political radicalism in the country, she said. If the country is not able to sustain higher levels of economic growth, new Malemas will come to the fore either inside or outside the ANC.

There is no obvious candidate seen now as filling Malema's shoes, but the need for an advocate for the poor is great. Malema's foes worry that future populists will also push plans such as mine nationalisation, which they fear could bring the country to financial ruin.

GROWING COMPLACENT

If Malema is sent into the political wilderness, the ANC cannot afford to grow complacent about his message. Youth unemployment is chronic and an increasingly angry underclass has launched violent protests over ANC failures to provide electricity, running water and basic schools.

ANC governments, which enjoy virtual one-party rule, have rolled out a variety of plans over the years to transfer wealth to the impoverished masses marginalised during apartheid, but so far have little to show for the money spent.

Funds have been lost to corruption and mismanagement. Policies often were not properly formulated to bring about change or were watered down to appease powerful allies.

The government last week unveiled its latest plan to grow the economy and end poverty, which included labour reforms and infrastructure spending. Analysts have few hopes the plan can succeed, leaving youth unemployment stuck at about 50 percent.

In an ominous sign, the Institute of Race Relations said about half of the current generation of those between 25 to 34 years old will never work in their lifetimes.

Malema said if he is forced out he expects the next Youth League leader to be a conformist. The league, founded by ANC stalwarts including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, is seen as a breeding ground for future ANC leaders.

The next president of the Youth League ... will be scared that if he also speaks in the interest of the poor and the youth he will also be suspended, Malema told a rally last week.

In Stjwetla, resident Victor Boloka, a Malema supporter, sat near shacks of twisted corrugated tin, broken glass and youths who pass the days gambling. He expects little to change.

Politicians come here one day and they're gone the next. We'll be here. And we are going to stay poor, he said.

(Additional reporting by Mmathabo Tladi; Editing by Peter Graff)