FORMER South African president Jacob Zuma and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu share something in common: No matter how much damning proof of wrongdoing piles up against them, they continue to behave without batting an eyelid. Zuma is out of office, after nearly destroying South Africa and should be in jail, but his cheerful face still appears on African National Congress party billboards and he is seen publically campaigning for the ANC, doing his characteristic dance, with no shame. People who rejoiced at the exposure of his corruption network thought, “We’ve got him!” But he projects himself as the victim of a conspiracy, saying, “I don’t know what I have done!”
Netanyahu’s three graft charges amount to very serious misdemeanours for which he could go to jail. But no crestfallen face has ever been seen from him. Withdrawing from politics to face his charges, which would be the right thing to do in good democracies, is totally unthinkable. That’s not how Israeli politics works and not how he works. Instead, he continues to behave as if he is a brave warrior fighting a sinister barrage of odds: “Without me at the helm to provide security, the country would fall!” is his message. Sadly, most Israelis believe him, as if there are no other capable people in the nation.
He claims a conspiracy against him from the ‘left’ and has made praise of anyone to the left of his politics as equivalent to a swear word: “It is the leftists who are out to get me”. In a right wing country like Israel, with the left in disarray, this finds fertile ears.
Zuma has never gone to jail, nor will he: the rot of corruption in every aspect of South Africa with his fingerprints on it is so deep that it will take years to examine and tackle, no matter how many commissions of inquiry work at it. By then the country will have moved on with other things to worry about.
It is highly unlikely that Netanyahu will go to jail too, given the political boiling pot which is Israel and the Middle East. The mark of a canny politician is not only what he does while in office, but how he behaves after exposure for lying or stealing. Netanyahu is still firmly in charge of what happens now.
Politics is a slippery business, not a profession which inspires ethical behaviour in Israel, South Africa or elsewhere. Accountability is difficult to impose. In South Africa, with its toxic, racial mix in politics, most potential whistleblowers quickly withdraw when faced with accusations of racism. Fear of the consequences easily turns into turning a blind eye, all the way from the level of the shopkeeper who cooks his books to pay less tax, to the highest politician who rapes his secretary.
Zuma also made headlines in 2005 after accusations that he raped the woman known as Khwezi, earning him his nickname ‘shower head’ after saying he had taken a shower after sex with her. But he still has a huge, loyal following in KwaZulu-Natal province, which threatens President Cyril Ramaphosa’s power to do what is necessary. This despite the estimated R500 billion loss to the country through state capture which flourished under Zuma.
In politics, it is often the most shrewd, not necessarily the most principled politicians who end up having the greatest effect. But it sticks in the throat to see Netanyahu arrogantly strolling the streets of Jerusalem as if all is well, with his face on Likud posters smiling at the people, just like Zuma does in Johannesburg.