Sins do have a way of catch­ing up... While Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma does not crush de­trac­tors like for­mer In­done­sian pres­i­dent (and dic­ta­tor) Mo­hamed Suharto did, cor­rup­tion and crony­ism are hall­marks of both their regimes.

Finweek English Edition - - OPINION - Is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal econ­omy at UCT’s Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness.

will Pres­i­dent Zuma’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer end like that of Mo­hamed Suharto, the for­mer In­done­sian pres­i­dent who ruled his coun­try with an iron fist for three decades? Suharto could not be more dif­fer­ent from Zuma. He was a sol­dier who as­sumed the pres­i­dency fol­low­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic crises that swept his charis­matic pre­de­ces­sor, Surabaya Sukarno, out of power. He was a dic­ta­tor who re­stricted so­cial free­doms and shut down in­de­pen­dent news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines.

He presided over a regime that bru­tally crushed po­lit­i­cal dis­sent; po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents were killed, im­pris­oned or sent to labour camps. The high point of the regime’s bru­tal­ity was the invasion and an­nex­a­tion of East Ti­mor, a for­mer Por­tuguese colony de­mand­ing in­de­pen­dence, which led to the killing of tens of thou­sands. Of course, he also brought sta­bil­ity to a tur­bu­lent coun­try and nur­tured eco­nomic growth by open­ing the econ­omy, at­tract­ing bil­lions in for­eign in­vest­ment.

What Suharto shared in com­mon with Zuma, how­ever, was the stench of cor­rup­tion that swirled around his pres­i­dency and suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments. Suharto’s In­done­sia gave a new mean­ing to the no­tion of state cap­ture and crony­ism.

Like Zuma’s, his ad­min­is­tra­tion was con­stantly dogged by al­le­ga­tions of graft and wrong­do­ing. His fam­ily and cronies used their ac­cess to the pres­i­dent to en­rich them­selves. They con­trolled big mo­nop­o­lies and prof­itable con­ces­sions. His chil­dren be­came fab­u­lously wealthy, with in­ter­ests in as di­verse in­dus­tries as ship­ping, tim­ber, co­coa, ho­tels, me­dia, au­to­mo­biles, toll roads, oil, bank­ing, elec­tron­ics, ce­ment and power plants.

A well-known In­done­sian scholar once ob­served that: “At least 80% of ma­jor gov­ern­ment projects go in some form to the pres­i­dent’s chil­dren or friends.” In 2004, Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional es­ti­mated that the Suharto fam­ily had amassed as much as $35bn from their busi­ness in­ter­ests.

Like Zuma, Suharto dis­missed the views of those aides who were coura­geous enough to warn him that nepo­tism was tar­nish­ing his pres­i­dency. He as­cribed his fam­ily’s huge for­tunes to en­trepreneurial ta­lent, not the fam­ily name. Also, he showed poor judg­ment by form­ing close re­la­tion­ships with morally com­pro­mised and scandal-rid­den syco­phants.

Like Zuma, Suharto was adept at ma­nip­u­lat­ing state in­sti­tu­tions as a way of wield­ing po­lit­i­cal con­trol. The per­va­sive con­trol of the state and econ­omy by the Suharto fam­ily and cronies led to the hol­low­ing out and weak­en­ing of state in­sti­tu­tions. In­sti­tu­tional dys­func­tion, in turn, cre­ated so­cial frag­men­ta­tion and pub­lic cyn­i­cism re­gard­ing whether such in­sti­tu­tions func­tioned as im­par­tial bod­ies or as agen­cies for the con­sol­i­da­tion of the power of elites.

Like Zuma, Suharto was a pow­er­ful leader who was seen as un­touch­able. But his fall was spec­tac­u­lar. And it was the 1997 Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis, which hit In­done­sia badly, that felled him. The cri­sis trig­gered wide­spread ri­ot­ing, eco­nomic paral­y­sis and po­lit­i­cal chaos. It brought to boil­ing point years of pub­lic dis­af­fec­tion with en­demic cor­rup­tion, grow­ing so­cial and eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties, and au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. Hav­ing failed to come to grips with the eco­nomic cri­sis, and amid pop­u­lar re­volt and bloody clashes with the se­cu­rity forces, Suharto even­tu­ally re­signed in 1998.

Al­though no cat­e­gor­i­cal con­clu­sions can be drawn, it is worth point­ing out that there are some sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween what is hap­pen­ing in South Africa today and what hap­pened in the fi­nal years of the Suharto regime: wide­spread po­lit­i­cal dis­con­tent, so­cial frag­men­ta­tion and eco­nomic dis­tress – an­other eco­nomic cri­sis sim­i­lar to the one that was sparked by the ax­ing of Nh­lanhla Nene would have dis­as­trous po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences.

De­spite al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, Suharto man­aged to es­cape crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion. Al­though he was charged with hav­ing em­bez­zled more than $600m, the charges were sub­se­quently dropped on ac­count that he was un­fit to stand trial on phys­i­cal and men­tal grounds.

Even though he never stood trial, the fact that he was charged rep­re­sented a deep hu­mil­i­a­tion for Suharto and his de­trac­tors wel­comed the symbol of his fall from grace. His son, Hu­tomo Man­dala Pu­tra, was not so lucky. He was found guilty of cor­rup­tion in a land deal and served a jail term.

Zuma is not a Suharto but if there is one im­por­tant les­son he can learn from the In­done­sian strong­man’s pres­i­dency, it is that even the most pow­er­ful, feared, ar­ro­gant, stub­born and shielded lead­ers even­tu­ally come un­stuck.

Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma

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