The publications politicians fear are, in order: the Mail & Guardian, The Sunday Times, everybody else, then the Independent Group. But with extraordinary timing The Star – yes, you read that right – has taken control of SA's biggest political issue. It has also wounded Julius Malema very badly indeed.
The pages of The Star is not where we'd typically look for leadership on political issues. A colourful account of the latest family murder, sure, because it does tabloid better than the tabloids themselves. Which, come to think of it, does have a lot in common with a media lifestyle audit: prurient interest, invasion of privacy, the heedless destruction of the subject.
In this case, however, the paper has an airtight defence. It's report checks all the boxes required of ethical journalism. It is in the public interest. It's even in line with official government policy, and it has the effective backing of Cosatu. Had it tried this trick in January it may have faced ANC criticism. But publishing immediately after finance minister Pravin Gordhan announced a plan for official lifestyle audits has put it beyond direct reproach – an uncharacteristic bit of good timing on its part.
If you haven't yet read the original report, here are the highlights. The paper confirmed Malema's ownership of two houses, worth a combined R4.6 million. It has valued his wristwatch at R250,000. It has listed the various luxury vehicles he drives. And then it contrasted that to his rumoured salary, which is R20,000 per month. Then it just lets the facts speak for itself: the most favourable mortgage possible would require a monthly repayment of around R40,000 to afford the two houses alone.
Malema, and indeed the ANC Youth League, did not respond to requests for comment before publication of the article, and as of late Friday afternoon had not responded in any form. That is, politically, an untenable situation, but there is no possible response that can not do more damage to both the man and the party. The facts speak for themselves. Admitting that he gets paid north of R100,000 per month (as would be required to maintain this lifestyle) would cause a riot within the Youth League. Admitting that he is being maintained by anyone with the funds available to do so at this level would make him a bought man, even if there is no provable corruption.
Nor can Malema make the story go away. He can not claim that he is not a public figure, or has no influence on national policy, having often said exactly the opposite. He can not claim that this is not a mater of public interest. He can play the race card (watch for the phrase "foreign-owned media" in reference to the Independent group), but even his most ardent supporters will see that as a weak attempt to avoid giving answers. Those supporters, the majority of Youth League members, are scrabbling for enough money to eat in a tough economy. They may idolise a self-made businessman living the high life, and perhaps wouldn't grudge a comrade a comfortable middle-class existence, but the quantum here is beyond what they can swallow.
Now we wait to see what Malema can come up with – and how other politicians and media respond. If you're a director-general or minister with three mansions to your name, then your sleep will surely be disturbed by the spectre of being the subject of the next Star lifestyle audit. If you're editing the Mail & Guardian, you are trying to figure out how to win back the initiative.
That's right: The Star is setting the agenda. Who’d have thunk it?
By Phillip de Wet