Zuma Watch

Zuma’s South Africa & Brazil on same trajectory?

Brazil’s Lula

Will South Africa follow the same trajectory as Brazil, with which it has much in common, including similar political challenges?

Comparing South Africa and Brazil reveal fascinating similarities, including:

  • both had violent colonial pasts;
  • the official language of both is European;
  • their societies are among the most unequal on the planet;
  • both are dominant regional role players in their respective regions and are members of Brics; and
  • economically both suffer from a stagnant economy contributing to rising unemployment, regular socio-economic related protests and unrest.  

It is, however, especially on the political front that South Africans will be able to identify with the people of Brazil.

For years, Brazil has been abused by corrupted government structures, with misdeeds permeating far and wide, threatening the very fabric of society. 

As a result, major state-owned entities are in the firing line. For example, similar, to what is happened with corruption at South Africa’s PetroSA, Brazil's Petrobras has been implicated in schemes diverting more than US$12 billion from the public coffers.

The Petrobras scandal, in tandem with declining business confidence, growing policy uncertainty and weak political leadership resulted in rating agencies downgrading Brazil to sub-investment grade status in 2015.   

In both countries, the main watchdog/gatekeeper between anarchy and order is a determined and uncompromised judiciary, playing the key role in combating corruption and political mismanagement.

However, in both countries the judiciary is under attack from some political quarters, attempting to discredit it, and erode its independence and impartiality.

Operation Car Wash

But, notwithstanding political and corporate pressure, the law has taken its course and since corruption investigations – in Brazil known as Operation Car Wash – were launched, more than 200 politicians and prominent businessmen in that country has heard the prison doors shut behind them.

Operation Car Wash has a familiar history, and tone to it, to what in South Africa became known as Guptagate.

Operation Car Wash started as just another of the many corruption investigations, involving politicians, state owned enterprise officials, and corrupt businesspeople. But quickly turned into something much bigger, mainly due to the determination of a few incorruptible law enforcement- and legal officers.

The investigations uncovered a vast, and intricate, web of political and corporate racketeering, including numerous foreign multinationals as accomplices.

Operation Car Wash became the biggest and most devastating investigation in the history of Brazil, and as Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian newspaper: ”In the long term, many hope Car Wash will ultimately make Brazil a fairer, more efficient nation, run by cleaner, law-abiding politicians.”

Particularly significant

Also of particular significance, is the similarities regarding the destructive path of corruption and the consequences for the credibility and trustworthiness of two presidents.

In 2002, during a time of much turbulence and instability, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Lula, a socialist and “man of the ordinary people”, became president of Brazil.

Facing a lot of apprehension, and against all odds, Lula proved his critics wrong and presided over a period of robust economic growth.  He brought about social transformation that lifted millions from poverty, making him the most popular president in the country’s history.

But, the prosperity was not sustainable because Lula’s reforms had only got through parliament with the aid of bribery, “those achievements were built on ethical quicksand.”

When Mr. Zuma became president in 2009, comparisons were made between him and Lula: “They are both of humble origin, came from the struggle of sectors that were despised and were elected to the presidency against the wishes of the two countries’ elites respectively.”

Zuma supporters expressed the view that he would emulate his Brazilian counterpart in removing all the negative perceptions, and do for South Africa what Lula did for Brazil.

Sadly, these expectations never materialized.

Opinion polls still paint Lula, despite being convicted of corruption and money laundering, and sentenced to nearly ten years in prison pending his appeal, as a hugely popular politician in Brazil. Opinion polls in South Africa, however, paint a different picture of the man from Nkhandla.

In what sounds extraordinary familiar, Lula’s private residence was improved using public funds. But in his case, it was a paltry R14.245 million, compared the R 246 million Nkandla bill, of which Zuma was ordered to pay back little more than R 7 million.

Lula was also convicted of having improper relations with a contractor, who gifted him an apartment in São Paulo.

In Zuma’s case, he denied that as part of his and his family’s relationship with the Guptas, he has come into possession of a luxurious estate in Dubai.  

He is contesting his sentence, but former president Lula was sentenced for his transgressions. President Zuma is trying all his worth to avoid his day in court, despite his cocky demand some time ago to “have his day in court” to answer to 783 corruption charges.

Justice will prevail

It was a protracted battle and the Brazilian fight is far from over, but, in the end justice prevailed and democracy and the rule of law in Brazil is the better for it.

For the sake of South Africa, and in the altered words of Jonathan Watts quoted above: ”In the long term, many hope Gutapgate will ultimately make South Africa a fairer, more efficient nation, run by cleaner, law-abiding politicians.”

by Gath Cilliers

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