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From Italy with Love: Jacob Zuma’s lessons from Silvio Berlusconi


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

There is much President Jacob Zuma and the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have in common. They’re both short, older men with a weakness for women. Both started at the bottom, Zuma as a cattle herder and Berlusconi as a vacuum-cleaner-salesman. Both men too seem immune to moral censure and the law. Before Berlusconi was brought down eventually in 2010 by a 17-year-old belly dancer, he dragged a trunkful of “howling malfeasances” behind him for his entire political career. A bit like Number One.

You’re going to end up like the Italians,” said my lunch partner after more disturbing weekend headlines inevitably involving something to do with President Jacob Zuma. “The Italians used to sit there twirling their pasta talking about it because what else could they do? It was like nothing could stop Berlusconi.”

Sometimes it is hard to absorb it all. Each new revelation — about billions wasted, squandered, frittered away, chowed, eaten, gorged, corruptly redirected by ministries, government departments, municipalities, State-Owned Enterprises, petty officials stealing social grants from the poorest of the poor, teachers and principals buying their positions — knocks more breath out of the citizenry.

Each new dawn it is as if a sewage pipe of corruption, violence, death and malfeasance bursts and washes over us. In five years there have been 55 political assassinations in South Africa, 47 of these in KwaZulu-Natal, Number One’s home turf.

December we thought would be crunch time for President Zuma after he fired Nhlanhla Nene. But no. It cost the economy billions but hey, who’s keeping count?

Even bombshell revelations in March that the Gupta family had attempted to influence various Cabinet appointments came to nought. Then there was another moment in March after the Constitutional Court judgment that President Zuma, and SA Parliament, violated the Constitution, and Zuma also needed to pay back some of public funds used to renovate Nkandla when we all caught our breaths, our collective pulses quickening as we thought, “maybe, perhaps, this could be the tipping point?”

But on April Fool’s night, a Friday, President Zuma made an unscheduled television address to the nation. We had talked ourselves into thinking he was going to announce his resignation. But he didn’t. He sort of apologised. And that was it. The ANC leadership came out in support of Number One.

The next surge of dopamine came after the Pretoria High Court ruling in the “spy tapes” saga that 700-odd charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering that were withdrawn against Jacob Zuma in 2009 should be reinstated. That case had dragged on for almost seven years. But no… not even that. President Zuma as well as one of his key placements, Shaun Abrahams at the NPA, are appealing the decision.

There were many, when Berlusconi was c0nvicted and sentenced in 2013 to seven years for exploiting under-age sex workers, who thought that that surely had to be the end of him. The female judges banned him from ever occupying public office again. There were scandals before this one, of course, serious cases of fraud and bribery.

But the old goat clung on with his dyed hair, his botoxed cheeks, his bleached teeth, his bottle of Viagra nestling in a pocket.

Writing in the New Yorker in 2013, Alexander Stille suggested, “Any one of these scandals would have shattered the career of a politician in most other democratic countries – why haven’t they represented a serious impediment to Berlusconi? For one, convictions at trial do not carry the same legal weight in Italy that they do in the US. The Italian justice system has three levels, and a conviction does not become ‘definitive’ until the defendant has exhausted his final appeal.”

Stille wrote that Italy’s statute-of-limitations system allows an extraordinary number of defendants, and Berlusconi in particular, to avoid a definitive judgment through delay.

In every other democracy I am aware of, the statute-of-limitations clock stops ticking as soon as judicial action begins, which means that a defendant cannot avoid conviction through legal pettifogging and stalling tactics. In Italy, the clock keeps ticking, with the predictable result that defendants with good lawyers routinely get off by filing motion after motion.”

Sound familiar?

And last, Stille observes, “Weaseling out on a technicality may seem problematic for a politician, but the extinction of these cases has allowed Berlusconi to present himself as a genuine innocent in the eyes of the law. This, combined with the sheer number of criminal cases, actually allows him to play the victim.”

So what are we do to? Roll our eyes and twirl our pasta or squish our pap into little balls, if we are lucky enough to have food. Do we just sit back and let it happen? Do we keep complaining that we expected better of the ANC and hope that the party ‘self-corrects’ (something that is psychologically impossible BTW if you have no insight, which the ANC’s current leadership does not appear to have).

Two legs of government have been found wanting. The executive and the legislature. The judiciary is sort of okay, but there are those – like everywhere in the world – who are not afraid to do the bidding of their masters and not justice.

What do do? You ask again.

Well, to keep fighting back. To keep exposing, speaking out, supporting those Chapter 9 institutions that protect our constitutional democracy, those NGOs that fight for our hard-earned rights, those individuals who are brave and bold enough to say, “no, not in our name”.

South Africans have to constantly recalibrate the political landscape. We are now in the realm of the real, the new normal of global politics where power and greed rather than ideology gives politicians a hard-on.

The work of democracy is never done. That’s the thing. And yes, maybe President Jacob Zuma will never have a day, his day, in court. This is well within keeping of a great South African tradition. Few, if any, apart from Eugene De Kock, were tried for various crimes in the past both political and economic. DM


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