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.
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