EAST LONDON - ANC Youth League President Julius Malema has utterly dominated the news of South Africa's media in the most remarkable manner in the past month - and it's good for the media business.
Not since the 1990s, when Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was at the height of her powers as the ANC's Loose Cannon has one individual fascinated and repulsed South Africa to such a degree. In the ‘90s, newspaper editors would talk of how papers would fly off the stands when there was Winnie hijinks - and now Malema is doing the same. He's tailor made for splashy attention-grabbing headlines that move papers and push up websites and radio audiences.
It's not hard to see why. Malema is no enigma wrapped in mystery. He's a vile careerist - controversial and divisive. He appears to shoot from the hip and says outrageously disrespectful things about his senior colleagues in the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance that are occasionally quite funny. And now, through the revelations of the past month, he has become the "tenderpreneur" poster boy. This goes to the heart of what is most wrong in South Africa today: the kleptocracy that is frittering away taxpayers' money on lavish lifestyles for the political inner circle at the expense of service delivery to the poor. Malema is, in fact, a frightening sign of our times.
But it's worth pausing and considering that it is the media that feeds the beast. Malema has become happily accustomed to his every pronouncement making headlines across the country. I confess I feel somewhat punch drunk with the ever more outrageous statements by the odious man and ponder what a swift kick up the pants it would be for him if the major media houses got together and decided to just stop covering Malema. He would be instantly emasculated.
But the media of the free market and of a democratic society doesn't work like that - and nor should we wish for such collusion.
What is fascinating is that the media's determination to expose Malema's crooked dealings and the SACP's desire to squash what the little toad has intersected in a rare sweet spot. It is well worth looking at how the current run of exposes of Malema's wealth came about - and it all seemed to start in November last year with a column by the astute Jacob Dlamini in a column for Business Day.
Dlamini wrote that the Malema caricature was diverting South Africans' attention away from his amassing of wealth through an expanding network of patronage based in Limpopo. Dlamini called Malema "one of the biggest proponents of the National Tender Revolution in this country" and "one of the biggest influence-peddlers in SA".
Of Malema's rise to power, Dlamini wrote on November 19: "Money has been good to Malema, and I don't just mean in terms of blue lights and easy living. Speak to youth league activists and they will tell you that Saki Mofokeng, the man he "defeated" to become ANCYL president, was a much better candidate. But he did not have Malema's deep pockets. Understand the role of money in Malema's rise to power and you understand why his predecessor, Fikile Mbalula, ditched Mofokeng, his homeboy and protege, for Malema."
This would have got quite a few journalists thinking and kudos to Dlamini for being the first to peer behind the Malema cartoon. Then serendipitously, at the same time the column was published Malema was rude about the SACP's deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin. You will recall he said that the Youth League did not need "the permission of white political messiahs to think". This appears to have been a step too far as Malema was boo-ed off stage at a SACP conference in December.
Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya told Moneyweb recently that "everybody's been working on that story - on where does the money come from" and that he had wanted to crack it in December and January but didn't have enough to publish then.
Certainly, Malema was asking for it, considering how he paraded his bling for all to see but it's most likely that Dlamini's column and an aside from an SACP member to a political journalist or two along the lines of "You know, Julius's salary is not enough to support his lifestyle" would have put the hacks on the trail.
Youth League members looking to unseat Malema probably helped the journalists to look into his involvement in tenders in Limpopo. Then came Cosatu's public support for "lifestyle audits" at the beginning of this year and editors across the land rubbed their hands in glee at getting sanction from within the alliance for digging into the business dealing of public figures.
The Star newspaper was first across the line with its lifestyle audit of Malema in February. Then, three days later, the Sunday Times and City Press splashed on the same day. (And, no, they would not have known of each other's plans as weekly papers guard their news diaries very closely so that the dailies don't get their first.) Both papers had damning details of the lucrative government contracts - mostly in Limpopo - awarded to Malema's companies.
Once newspapers break such a big story, it's like shaking the tree. More and more people are emboldened to come forward with information or help the journalists lay their hands on more evidence. City Press's subsequent story on Malema not submitting tax returns since his election as Youth League president two years previously is an example of this and then the paper did the obvious follow up and looked into the state of work delivered by Malema's companies in the Limpopo tenders.
Partly, Malema is the first victim of the long overdue rising trend in SA's media - especially our newspapers - to invest in investigative journalism. And one thing's for sure: we haven't yet reached the heights of Malema's diatribe and thuggish behaviour towards the media as he fights for his political life.
The media is not going to let Malema slip away from them. Many editors would have been annoyed and alarmed at the Youth League's recent ham-handed attempt to hit back at the press by trying to discredit City Press's investigations editor Dumisani Lubisi. These editors will be projecting any new exposes of the Youth League president with even more bloody-minded zeal.
Further, Malema has challengers to his position from within the League itself - especially from the left-leaning Eastern Cape. The Mail & Guardian has reported that there is a move to unseat Malema at the League's national congress next year and replace him with Andile Lungisa, the Youth League's deputy president who comes from Port Elizabeth.
Interestingly, the SACP and Cosatu are coming out of this looking rather good as they have maintained a dignified but firm disapproval of Malema's crazy utterances.
But President Jacob Zuma has had to tread lightly around Malema as, firstly, the Youth League is the "tenth province" in the ANC voting set-up and, secondly, he can't afford to have Malema turn his thuggish tongue on him. We saw, for instance, last weekend that when Zuma publicly slapped him down (indirectly of course), Malema ignored him by ranting about "white boer" journalists directly afterwards.
So Malema will continue to occupy the headlines for the rest of the year as the Youth League holds it provincial conferences in the run up to the 2011 congress. I'm sure there's more exposes to come on his business dealings and Malema's retaliation will intensify as this will help him in his cause to win Youth League votes. There's nothing like playing the conspiracy card to get you sympathy within the ANC rank and file.
What is going on now -when Malema trots out his "kill the boer" and "nationalise the mines" sound bites is that he is talking to the Youth League in the language of their liberation history. Because Malema won himself a place on the national media stage last year, these statements are projected and heard by the rest of the country.
Normally the media would not cover the Youth League president's movements so closely but editors and news editors know he's bound to say something controversial so if Malema pops up at a rally, the hacks are there with notebooks and tape recorders in hand.
It's this vicious circle that makes Malema so powerful. Whether it will ultimately take him down is very hard to say.
*Media columnist Gill Moodie spent 14 years as a salaried hack in print media in South Africa and the UK before escaping to the blogosphere and freelance journalism. She is the publisher of Grubstreet http://grubstreet.co.za/ in between unpacking and packing the infernal dishwasher and bringing up a four-year-old with attitude.
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