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Three Presidents Face Jail

Presidents and prime ministers who start wars still don’t go to jail, but in democratic countries it is getting common to see presidents facing jail for corruption. In fact, we have had three since last Friday.

In South Korea, former President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $17 million on Friday for bribery, extortion, abuse of power and other offences. She is guilty as charged, but she is also a victim.

On Saturday, former South African President Jacob Zuma appeared in a Durban court to face corruption charges over a $2.5 billion arms deal soon after his own party forced him to resign a year before his term ended. Since Zuma’s former financial adviser has already served jail time on identical charges, his chances of a happy retirement seem rather slim.

And on Sunday former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as ‘Lula’, began serving a 12-year jail term for corruption. However, he’s probably not guilty of anything that would justify his imprisonment.

That’s three gone or going in one weekend, and there are others in the queue – like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces charges that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi illegally funded his 2007 presidential campaign.

Running a country is clearly a high-risk job, and the people who get the job tend to be risk-takers. Not all of them are rich, and they are exposed to many temptations. Nevertheless, not all cases of corruption are about simple self-enrichment.

Ex-president Park’s was not, although she collected at least $35 million in bribes from major Korean companies including Samsung and the giant retailer Lotte. But Park Geun-hye was doing it all at the behest of her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a preacher and cult leader who won the trust of Park’s father more than forty years ago.

The ex-president’s father, Park Chung-hee, ruled South Korea as a military dictator in the 1970s. When Park Geun-hye’s parents were both assassinated, the orphaned girl was befriended by the preacher’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, who established a comparable control over her.

In 2013 Park Geun-hye was elected to the presidency, but Choi Soon-sil’s influence never weakened. The bribes that Park received while in office almost all went to foundations controlled by Choi. Both women have gone to jail, and both deserved to, but Park was as much a victim as a villain.

Jacob Zuma’s is a simpler story. He was a major figure in the African National Congress during the decades of struggle against apartheid, first in prison on Robben Island and then in exile as the ANC’s head of military intelligence. (His former chief of staff in that job once described him to me as a “military genius”.)

But Zuma had no money, and when he got political power in post-apartheid South Africa he set about to remedy that problem. There has never been any real doubt that he benefited enormously from the arms purchase deal, and he was forced to resign the deputy presidency in 2005 – but after he was elected as leader of the ANC in 2007 he managed to get the charges dropped.

By 2009 he was the president of South Africa, and for the next nine years the charges remained in abeyance. When he was forced out of office two months ago for further brazen acts of corruption and for general economic mismanagement of the country, the charges were resurrected almost instantly, and now he faces a world of woe. About time, too, many would say.

And Lula? There probably was no crime in the first place. Brazil is going through an enormous corruption scandal and more than half the members of Congress face charges, but so long as they control Congress and the presidency they can probably stave them off. An election is due in October, however, and Lula would probably win it – if he were not in prison.

The crime he is charged with is petty by Brazilian standards: accepting free renovation work when his wife moved to a bigger holiday apartment in the seaside town of Guaraju. His judgement may have been clouded at the time, because he was fighting cancer, but in any case
he was no longer in office and unable to do any political favours in return. He denies the whole thing, but at worst it was foolish to accept the help, not corrupt.

Lula still lives in the industrial city of Sao Bernardo do Campo, 20 km from Sao Paulo, in a modest house within walking distance of the steelworkers union headquarters where I first interviewed him almost forty years ago. He is an honest man of simple tastes, but at the moment he is sitting in jail.

He still has an appeal working its way up through the courts, but it’s unlikely to set him free. The real reason he is in jail is to keep him from contesting the election, so there he will stay.

The rule of law is an excellent thing, but no system devised by human beings is invulnerable to manipulation by other human beings.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 15. (“That’s…campaign”; “The ex-president’s…her”; and “Lula…jail”)

South Africa

A passer-by in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Saxonwold observed, the South African Police would never have raided the enormous, high-walled compound of the Gupta family if President Jacob Zuma were not on the brink of being removed. But early Wednesday morning, the police did exactly that.

The Guptas, three Indian immigrant brothers who became extremely rich due to their close partnership with Zuma, used to be untouchable. They were accused of ‘state capture’ in the media, but they were safe because of their alliance with Zuma. He did very nicely out of the deal too.

All that’s over now. One of the Gupta brothers was arrested in the raid, and the other two cannot be far behind. It was a signal to Zuma that the gloves were coming off, and fifteen hours later he was gone. He had clung desperately to the presidency since the African National Congress (ANC) voted him out as its leader in December, but on Wednesday evening he resigned “with immediate effect”.

Jacob Zuma joined the ANC, the country’s main liberation movement, in 1959, and had an illustrious career. He served ten years’ imprisonment on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, fled abroad in 1975, and became chief of the ANC’s Intelligence Department during the 1980s.

A man who served as his chief of staff in those years, a white South African now living abroad who has no reason to seek Zuma’s approval, told me recently that he was a brilliant strategist. He had admired Zuma greatly, he said, and like many others he was as much puzzled as dismayed by what Zuma became during his later years. After the decades of
sacrifice and dedication, it has been a tragic fall from grace.

Technically, Zuma still had a year left in his second term as president, but the ANC wanted him out now because he was blighting the party’s chances of winning next year’s election. Friendly hints and subtle pressures were not shifting him, so on Tuesday the ANC’s newly elected National Executive Committee ordered him to resign from the state presidency.

Zuma was still telling various media that he would refuse to quit until late afternoon on Wednesday, although it was clear that there was no way he could win. The state president is elected by parliament, not by a popular vote, and parliament can also remove him by a non-confidence vote. The ANC has a majority in parliament, and such a vote was already scheduled for the 22nd.

Why did he hang on so long if he was bound to lose in the end? Probably because he was hoping to negotiate some sort of amnesty deal in return for going quietly. But that’s a hard thing to do in South Africa, as the government does not control the courts.

Until recently Zuma’s exit plan involved getting his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chosen to succeed him as ANC president. She would then protect him from the many corruption charges that awaited him after he left the state presidency, at least in theory. But the ANC elected Cyril Ramaphosa as its president instead.

After that, Zuma’s only hope, if he wants to stay in South Africa after leaving office – which he clearly does – was an amnesty deal. But if the ANC is to rebuild its credibility with the voters there must be no amnesty, and Ramaphosa has said publicly that it is not on the cards. That is probably true.

In any case, it’s over now. Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader who became a very rich businessman, will probably take over the state presidency only briefly now, choosing some other ANC worthy to serve out the last year of Zuma’s term. He would prefer to be elected state president next year in his right. But in fact he will already be running the show behind the scenes, and much will be expected of him.

South Africa’s economy has stagnated during Zuma’s nine-year reign, in large part because both foreigners and local people were reluctant to invest in a country whose government had become so corrupt. There needs to be a massive cleansing exercise within the ANC, and it needs to start now if the results are to be visible before the election.

Zuma may stay to face the music – or, more likely, he will move abroad and live in the $25 million palace that the Guptas reportedly bought for him in Dubai. (He has categorically denied owning any property abroad himself, but the denial was carefully phrased.)

The ANC has fallen a long way from its glory days, but it is a legitimate and democratic political party that still commands the loyalty of many, perhaps most South Africans. Now that Zuma has finally quit, Ramaphosa, a competent and by all accounts an honest man, can get started on rebuilding the party’s reputation.

If he succeeds, the ANC could still win next year’s election and another five years in power. Whether that is the best thing for South Africa, given that the ANC has already been in power for a quarter-century, is another question.

South Africa: It Could Be Worse

“We have three gangsters, one suspect, and a president who is prisoner of a Top Six that is clearly compromised,” said Zackie Achmat, Aids activist and Nobel Prize nominee, on hearing that Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader and businessman, had been elected president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC).

It’s hard to celebrate when another billionaire wins an election, but thoughtful people in South Africa are at least relieved: it could have been worse. It could have been Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma, a profoundly corrupt man who has allowed, even encouraged corruption to spread through the higher ranks of the ANC.

There’s no evidence that NDZ is corrupt herself, but it was widely believed that if she won power she would protect her former husband, who is otherwise likely to go to jail after he leaves the presidency. He faces 18 charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering, money laudering and tax evasion relating to 783 payments.

In October the Supreme Court of Appeal reinstated the charges, which Zuma has repeatedly used his presidential powers to suppress or postpone. His former financial adviser, who went to jail for making those payments, says he will testify against Zuma if necessary.

Zuma was counting on NDZ to protect him (they have four children together), and most of the ANC bigwigs who joined him in plundering the economy also backed her bid for the presidency. But Cyril Ramaphosa outmanoeuvred her, and on Tuesday he was narrowly elected president of the ANC.

He’s not yet running South Africa, but in the 23 years since apartheid ended the ANC’s president has usually become the country’s president as well. Zuma can technically stay in power until the next scheduled elections in 2019, but last time the ANC’s president changed, the party immediately “recalled” the sitting president of South Africa (Thabo Mbeki) and put in the new man (Zuma). That may happen again this time – or it may not.

If Ramaphosa becomes president of the whole country soon, there are high hopes that the corruption and the constant subversion of the law will stop, or at least shrink. Billionaires don’t need to steal. And if local and foreign investors believe that Ramaphosa is not only honest but competent, then maybe the economy will manage better than one percent growth.

That would be nice, since it’s a long time since South Africa has seen any real economic growth. But it’s far from guaranteed, because Ramaphosa has been lumbered with a “Top Six” in the National Executive Committee (NEC) – a kind of cabinet – at least half of whom backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Two of them, David Mabuza, now Deputy President of the NEC, and Ace Magashule, now Secretary-General, are definitely “gangsters”. They have ruled two large provinces, Mpumalanga and the Free State, for a long time; they are both inexplicably rich; and both of them have close ties to the Guptas, a mega-rich family of Indian immigrants who have such influence over Zuma that they have been accused of “state capture”.

Mabuza has also been accused of running a private militia, and there has been an unusually high death rate among his local critics in Mpumalanga. Magashule’s critics have also had some health issues. The two men are definitely part of the problem, not of the solution.

It’s less clear whom Zackie Achmat thought the third “gangster” was, but it could be Jessie Duarte, now Magashule’s deputy. She also has ties to the Guptas, and vigorously defends Zuma’s action at every opportunity. All three were elected by the leadership conference, and Ramaphosa can’t fire them, so his hands are tied – or at best, his freedom of action is severely restricted.

Zuma will therefore probably have another year to feather his nest and undermine the judiciary and the police before the scheduled general election in 2019. Even after that it is questionable how much headway Ramaphosa can make in cleaning up the party.

The great irony here is that Ramaphosa is richer than all of the thieves put together. If he could just have given them all the money they stole (an estimated $40 million in Zuma’s case, but much less for most of them), Ramaphosa would still be rich at the end of it and a lot of these crooks would have done the jobs they were elected for.

Some of them might even have done their jobs well, in which case South Africa would be a different place. But if Ramaphosa had gone down that road, he would probably have ended up trying to buy the courts and the country’s remarkably free media as well, and those are its only safeguards against a descent into total dysfunction.

As an old friend and lifelong ANC member said to me a couple of years ago: “If you had told me in 1984 (in the depths of apartheid) what South Africa would be like now, I would have been delighted. If you had told me in 1994 (the year of the country’s first free election), I would have been in despair.” The right attitude, of course, is somewhere in between.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 13 and 14. (“Mabuza…solution”; and “The great…dysfunction”)

South Africa: Last Chance for the ANC

The African National Congress has ruled South Africa for 23 years, ever since the end of apartheid and the first free election in 1994. Twenty-three years is a very long time in politics, and you would expect it to be losing power some time around now. But it was a great and noble institution in its prime, and it would be a pity if its ending was merely squalid.

Nelson Mandela, the first ANC President of South Africa, was a secular saint admired world-wide. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, was a honest and intelligent man, but also reclusive, completely lacking in empathy, and obsessive (he spent thousands of hours searching the internet for evidence that HIV did not cause AIDS, and at least half a million South Africans died because his government did not make the standard drugs available).

And then, eight years ago, came President Jacob Zuma, a man who is neither honest nor intelligent, but who is wily enough politically to have survived the endless corruption scandals that litter his past. This time, however, he has done something that damages the whole country economically, and if the ANC cannot force Zuma to resign now then its political future is likely to be short and miserable.

Ironically, it’s not clear whether Zuma’s motives in this latest initiative are entirely corrupt. He has feathered his own nest and those of his cronies and allies quite adequately over the past eight years without getting rid of the incorruptible finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. Why dismiss him now, only two years before Zuma must retire at the end of his second term?

Maybe Zuma is just doing a final big favour for his friends – but maybe he has been talked into this by smarter men who told him that if he just spent a lot more money (which isn’t there to spend), that he could finally raise the living standards of the multitudinous South African poor.

Zuma is an “old comrade”, after all: he spent years imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and the other ANC icons. Maybe some shreds of his old idealism remain, and it was his associates inside and outside the government who persuaded him that Gordhan was the only thing standing between South Africans and prosperity.

That’s how the rhetoric justifies it. Zuma talks about the need for a “radical socio-economic transformation” in South Africa, and the new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, points out that “the ownership of wealth and assets remains concentrated in the hands of a small part of the population.” All true, of course, but these are not the people you would hire to fix it. And meanwhile, the resistance to Zuma’s move builds.

Pravin Gordhan was seen by foreign investors (and many South Africans) as the only guarantee that Zuma would not turn the country into a feeding trough for his associates. The finance minister held the purse-strings tight, blocking many of the government contracts that would have enriched them further. Now he is gone.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa called the dismissal of Pravin “totally unacceptable” and condemned “greedy and corrupt people” in a broadside clearly aimed at Zuma. Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ANC, said the list of new ministers which Mr Zuma presented to the party leadership was compiled “elsewhere”. Even his old allies in the trade union movement have called on Zuma to step down.

The South African currency, the rand, lost 5 percent of its value on the foreign exchanges, but far more serious was the fact that one of the big ratings agencies, Standard and Poor’s, downgraded South African bonds to “junk” status. If only one of the other two agencies follows suit, big international investors like pension funds will be obliged to dump their South African government debt, and the government will be unable to raise loans abroad.

The reactions against Zuma’s action are so intense that you would think he cannot just ignore them and carry on running the country into the ground. Unfortunately, he may be able to do just that, because real power within the ANC lies in the National Executive Committee, and he has devoted much attention to ensuring that most of the NEC’s members owe him for past favours received.

The odds on Zuma really being forced from office by this incident are less than even. If he gets two more years in office, now with a pliable finance minister who allows the looting of the state coffers to proceed unhindered and with wicked foreign investors to blame for the resulting havoc in the country, the ANC will be discredited beyond hope of resurrection.

What comes afterwards may be better and it may be worse, but the familiar ANC-ruled South Africa of the past quarter-century will be gone.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“That’s…builds”)