Zuma needs to tread carefully as he crushes the monster he helped make
The words of the man I was arguing with still ring clear in my head. For those readers familiar with the story I will beg indulgence.
The argument took place shortly after Julius Malema was elected president of the ANC Youth League at a debauched conference in Bloemfontein in 2008.
How, I asked the ANC figure, could the party allow a person of Malema's character to assume such a powerful position? As chillingly worrying and completely whacky as the explanation was, the candour was welcome.
He explained that the tradition of the youth league was that each generation of leadership always had to be more militant than the previous. He gave me a grand tour of ANCYL history going back to the '40s, showing how the degrees of militancy had increased at each point.
A mistake had been made in 1996 when fiery Peter Mokaba was replaced by the more urbane Lulu Johnson and later by the bookish Malusi Gigaba. These two leaders lacked Mokaba's volcanic ability to bring crowds to their feet and inspire the youth to action.
This "lull" in radicalism had been corrected with the election of Fikile Mbalula in 2002.
After Mbalula, he told me, "we could not go backwards". Someone more militant was needed, hence Malema. After Malema the league will require someone even more militant.
At what point would this vehicle go over the cliff, I remember asking myself.
Malema's ascension made absolute sense. It was the confirmation of a climate of madness that had engulfed the ANC since it decided in 2005 that its saviour from the clutches of Thabo Mbeki would be a cerebral lightweight with a penchant for borrowing money with no intention of giving it back. To loosely paraphrase the notorious apartheid torturer Spyker van Wyk, Malema's election was "die laaste spyker in die kas" of sense - the last nail in the coffin of good sense in the ANC. An organisation that had for 95 years prided itself on good thinking had been mesmerised by giggles and gyrations.
Having gone down that road, the ANC now finds itself hostage to mediocrity and chaos. As many have pointed out, the seeds of this week's mayhem in Johannesburg were sown during President Jacob Zuma's rise to party and state power.
The ANC has had to resort to using a 400 pound sledgehammer to crush the monster it created and nurtured.
The cobbled-together nature of the charges against Malema and the co-charging of his executive show the desperation with which the ANC needed to deal with its Frankensteins.
From his bellicose statements to his disrespect for leaders to his legitimate pronouncements on Botswana, the ANC has thrown everything at him.
So when Malema walks into the disciplinary hearing he must know that he is walking into an execution chamber. He will either come out in a casket or at best be wheeled out on a stretcher.
The ANC will deal with him the way it has always done with those it has considered renegades: cut off his political oxygen. What the ANC managed to perfect in its internal and exile existence was the ability to exorcise problematic members. While some of these were exercises in organisational discipline, in many instances these exorcisms were political thuggery on the part of the leadership.
So unless Malema agrees to behave and always subject himself to the dictates of the party's leadership - a tall order - he will find himself in the wilderness. The ANC will then have to find a new, more compliant youth league leadership - which will not suit the narrative outlined at the beginning of this column.
The challenge for the ANC and the country's leadership will be how to contain the restlessness of those young people for whom Malema represented hope. It will be about finding a group of people able to occupy the space that Malema and his fine-living crew had hypocritically carved for themselves - that of being the voice of the poor and marginalised. In him they found a voice that spoke of their frustrations. Even though he chewed on the finest fat and sipped the finest liquids, he was able to delude millions of young people into thinking he was their ticket to economic freedom.
The slogan "economic freedom in our lifetime" is now the daily chant of youth leaguers and peripheral followers. Malema cleverly and cynically exploited a real problem which, while they understand it, the country's political leadership has not treated with the necessary urgency.
When Zuma stands over Malema's political corpse and ponders other adversaries on the rocky road to re-election, he must also apply his mind to the conditions that created the demagogue. One of these is the broken ANC that was damaged by him and those who fought to get him to power. The more critical challenge will be to provide tangible hope for the army of disenchanted youth.
Otherwise they will find another messiah. And he or she may just not be one who is subject to the discipline of any party.