Defend Truth


Power, Abuse and Falling on your Sword


Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

The politics of power, privilege and patronage has been around since time immemorial.

In his book Corruption and the Decline of Rome, historian Ramsay MacMullen contends: Bribery and abuses always occurred, of course. But by the fourth and fifth centuries they had become the norm: no longer abuses of a system, but an alternative system in itself. The cash nexus overrode all other ties. Everything was bought and sold: public office including army commands and bishoprics, judges’ verdicts, tax assessments, access to authority on every level, and particularly the emperor. The traditional web of obligations became a marketplace of power, ruled only by naked self-interest.”

Fast-track to the 20th century and beyond, and not much has changed. In the western world, the US Watergate scandal must stand out. President Richard Nixon was accused of: hindering “justice in the Watergate investigation; wide-ranging abuse of presidential powers, and subversion of constitutional government by defiance of congressional subpoenas”. He was forced to resign in disgrace in August 1974.

Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from the Washington Post played a critical role for publicly uncovering the details of the Watergate scandal. They contended that “the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House”.

On 12 May 2016, Brazil’s senate voted 55-22 to suspend President Dilma Rousseff from the popular Brazil’s Workers’ Party and prosecute her for “illegally using public funds to cover up flaws on the country’s balance sheet”; and embezzlement of state assets at “Petrobas, a state-backed oil giant that Rousseff herself chaired from 2003 to 2010”. The BBC reported “allegations that Brazil’s biggest construction firms overcharged state-oil company Petrobras for building contracts. Part of their windfall would then be handed to Petrobras executives and politicians who were in on the deal”.

Evidence gathered by police revealed “more than $2bn siphoned off Petrobras in bribes and secret payments for contract work, $3.3bn paid in bribes by the construction firm Odebrecht, more than 1,000 politicians on the take from the meat-packing firm JBS, 16 companies implicated, at least 50 congressmen accused, four former presidents under investigation”. Investigators also discovered an intricate web of deceit and deception, including “false contracts and invoices used to justify deposits and transfers to the accounts of alleged shell companies, which, according to allegations, never rendered any services in return”. (Sounds familiar …?).  Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was also implicated.

In January 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was referred to as a “kept” Israeli leader. There were serious allegations of “double billing of travel expenses”, that he received forbidden gifts from Israeli billionaire Arnon Milchan worth thousands of dollars, including Cuban cigars and jewellery. Australian casino boss, James Packer, apparently paid for Netanyahu’s family holidays. Netanyahu denied that such gifts were tantamount to bribery, and he viewed them simply “tokens of friendship”. His wife Sara Netanyahu was also being investigated separately for fraud. Police were preparing to interdict both.

According to journalist Jonathan Cook, “Netanyahu’s appetite for a free lunch has been common knowledge in Israel since his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s. Then, he was twice investigated for fraud, though controversially charges were not brought in either case”. 

In July 2013, in the tiny landlocked nation of Luxembourg, surrounded by Belgium, France and Germany, the government was forced to resign because of serious allegations that the state’s “security agency illegally bugged politicians and members of the public, purchased cars for private use and took payments and favours in exchange for access to influential officials”.

In March 2017, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was forced to leave office, when the Constitutional Court unanimously endorsed a parliamentary vote to impeach her for her role in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal … (and) “for continuously (violating) the law and constitution”.

The political outrage relates to the role of Park’s lifelong friend, Choi Soon-sil, who had no official appointment but exercised “great influence over the president, much more than her official advisers and ministers”. The media played an important role in the revelations, with suggestions that the President was a “puppet”.

After the usual, initial denials, Park did apologise: “Regardless of what the reason may be, I am sorry that the scandal has caused national concern and I humbly apologise to the people …

Sad thoughts trouble my sleep at night. I realise that whatever I do, it will be difficult to mend the hearts of the people, and then I feel a sense of shame.”

In a column entitled Trump and the Parasite Presidency in the New York Times, political commentator Charles M Blow contended: “Trump will continue to debase and devalue the presidency with his lies. Trump will continue to follow (Steve) Bannon’s philosophy of internal deconstruction of our government, its principles and its institutions. And Trump will continue to leech as much personal financial advantage as he can from the flesh of the American public”. Now how about substituting Trump with you-know-who … same difference?

In all the different corruption scandals, access to hidden, confidential information was crucial, and the free world owes a deep debt of gratitude to hard-nosed journalists and courageous editors who investigated and published without fear or favour, and spoke truth to power.

In all the cases discussed above, there are significant parallels with recent grave events in South Africa, which would have buried mere mortals. In South Africa we have had to deal with Sarafinagate, Armsgate, Travelgate, Fifagate, Prasagate, Transnetgate, Eskomgate, Tegetagate, Denelgate, Nkandlagate, Statecapturegate, Saharanpurgate, Dubaigate, Saxonwoldgate, Guptagate, GuptaLeaks, etc. However, no politician or government leader has resigned or been forced to fall on their sword. Rather, the beloved country fumbles, falls and failure appears inevitable. DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity


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