Foreign Policy Blogs

On South Africa

I first visited South Africa in 2008, when Thabo Mbeki was being outmaneuvered by Jacob Zuma, who forced out Mbeki and ascended to the presidency in spite of sexual assault and corruption charges. No one then understood how catastrophic Zuma’s eight years in power would be—but a report the other weekend demonstrates how he undermined critical democratic institutions, behaved as though he is not beholden to the law, and used the state to employ a Western accounting firm to create and spread fake news before the term was en vogue here. As President Trump forsakes allies and negotiates with North Korea, it is critical that we do not miss the forest for the trees, lest we find ourselves ten years from now, like many South Africans today, wondering why we did not stop him sooner.

Jacob Zuma, aided by KPMG, accused South Africa’s tax authority of politically motivated investigations and illegal spying as a precursor to asserting control of the tax authority and later the treasury. He waged a war on a government department to protect himself, his family, and his cronies and to hide illegal activity. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan briefly confirmed this week that the FBI did not illegally or inappropriately spy on the Trump campaign, only to talk back his statement under political pressure, as Trump continues to undermine the entirety of the FBI. Donald Trump, aided and abetted by the Republican Party, has led a public war against Mueller, so it should come as no surprise public approval of Mueller’s non-partisan investigation is at an all-time low, along partisan lines. Mueller is successfully identifying and prosecuting criminal acts; Trump is working to delegitimize our entire justice system in service of his personal interests.

Under South Africa’s post-Apartheid government, the number of people paying taxes quadrupled, surpassing even the United States for the rate of collection. The South African public did not know Zuma himself refused to pay taxes, but they resented endemic corruption while watching Zuma incapacitate the tax authority, driving down collection rates. Not only has Trump lauded tax avoidance like Zuma, but also the unfettered indulgences of Cabinet members Ben Carson and Scott Pruitt support the false narrative that such corruption is politics-as-usual, fostering cynicism about governance while the politically connected abuse power for personal gain. Endemic corruption of this nature undermines democracy at its core.

In perhaps the darkest of parallels, Zuma once mused to his tax commissioner, “Why must I go and answer questions in Parliament? Putin doesn’t go to Parliament to answer questions.” Trump’s admiration for Putin and Russia are well documented, as is his legal team’s argument for not answering the questions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump and his team argue they are above the law, with self-pardon power and the authority to end any investigation at any time. Trevor Noah’s early segment on Trump becoming our first African dictator is more prescient now than when it aired in October 2015, with Trump’s total disregard for transparency and democracy.

My first night back in the United States after I returned from South Africa included the infamous debate in which Donald Trump implicitly referenced the size of his genitals. Yes, that happened. Yes, he is President. Here’s the thing: I’m still optimistic about South Africa and its new President, Cyril Ramaphosa. I think he may be able to right the ship. But initial optimism has given way to recognition of the depth of the hole created by Zuma’s corrupt presidency (the currency has dropped more than 30 percent since the initial bounce after Zuma’s ouster). The question, then, is how deep of a hole will we let Trump dig us? Congressional Republicans have not exercised oversight, Trump may succeed in undermining Mueller’s investigation, and the Trump family continues to profit on executive decisions. How deep will we let him dig this hole before we reclaim our identity as the leading democratic nation on the planet?

Steven Leach is a conflict and development expert who lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for five years; he is also a Security Fellow with Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.