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Berlusconi falls: Is Zuma next?

The downfall of Silvio Berlusconi leaves Jacob Zuma the sole custodian of an exclusive club of self-made, charismatic populists with persistent legal issues. Not to mention leaving no-one to send him pyjamas!

“There’s not really much difference between Zuma and Berlusconi,” emailed my friend Christiaan. “Both are dogged by allegations of corruption and sexual exploits. Anyway, maybe an interesting comparison for Thought Leader.”

It’s certainly true that Berlusconi and Zuma are alike. But not in the ways we’ve become accustomed to think.

For one thing, the colourful sins they share don’t actually matter, politically. Voters can stand pretty much anything. Insatiable gluttons for punishment, they happily inflicted on themselves 10 years of Berlusconi and another 12 of Putin. Even George Bush was brought down not by Iraq, Afghanistan or his phenomenal mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, but by a constitutional term limit.

No, what slays leaders is not voter outrage over corruption, inequality, sex scandals and hypocrisy, but cowardice. That is the one truly substantive thing Zuma really shares with Berlusconi, and it will earn him a similar fate.

Berlusconi swept into power crusading against what he described as the baleful legacy of the left: a climate of protectionism and entitlement that allegedly rendered Italy stifled, uncompetitive and resistant to the modernisation it urgently needed. And, probably unique among all his pronouncements, the accusation had a grain of truth (albeit exaggerated by his rabid anti-communist paranoia).

At the start of the 21st century, Italy had one of the largest but slowest-growing and rigid economies in Europe. After a half century of militant trade unionism, labour flexibility is virtually non-existent. Cartels and guilds, usually the preserve of historical fiction, still keep a stranglehold over entire swaths of the economy. Byzantine, overlapping regulations laid down by a crusty old boys club of gutless social-democratic rulers and enforced by a corrupt and politicised judiciary have made Italy one of the hardest countries in which to start a business.

Enter Silvio — a brash, energetic political outsider, unabashedly rich and openly contemptuous of the face-saving and unspoken rules of “polite society”, he promised to wrest the country free from its vested interests, rouse it from its stupor, and drag it into the new millennium at all costs.

Well, we all know what transpired next. Yes, he became hated, but for none of the reasons people expected to hate him for: destroying the unions, lifting economic protections, and wrapping up the welfare state. That’s because none of that happened.

About the biggest change this human dynamo brought to Italy was a new seatbelt law.

People always wonder how Berlusconi managed to hold on to power for so long when no-one admits to voting for him. The answer is simple. The ridicule he attracted for being a buffoon was never strong enough to unseat him, while he was simply not brave enough to do the painful things — like economic reform and taking on the unions — that would have inspired enough hatred to take him down.

So what did get him, in the end?

It wasn’t the womanising, embarrassing off-colour jokes, the endless trials, bunga bunga parties, the dirty divorce, underage sex, alleged links to the mafia, untold conflicts of interest or corruption scandals.

No, his undoing was his own procrastination, over the economy. After years of inaction, the spiralling debt and non-existing growth — the very things he went in promising to fix, and which the public, scared of pain, gladly forgave him for ignoring — came back to fatally, fatally bite him.

In the end, Berlusconi was not punished by his people for ignoring the problem; he was punished by the problem itself.

In this way, his downfall resembled that of his erstwhile friend Muammar Gaddafi. Here too was a colourful, charming ruler, ridiculed for his madness and eccentricity. Though widely hated for a catalogue of motley sins, he was not brought down by Lockerbie, or by his hypocritical accommodation with the West, or by people power like Hosni Mubarak and the others.

Like Berlusconi, his erratic reign gave the impression of tumult and instability, but proved to be a cover, a front, for a fundamental lack of courage to enact big reforms. Gaddafi’s Libya and Berlusconi’s Italy chugged quietly along, their internal decay disguised by the superficial boldness and theatrical novelty of their rulers. Their people, just barely content enough to hold on to the devil they knew, were spared the hard choices that might have pushed them over the brink.

Like Berlusconi, Gaddafi was also punished by his biggest, most neglected problem. In what was a generational coup as much as a military one, he had declared a dynamic new Libya run by fresh faces explicitly committed to the romantic empowerment of the youth. The reign of the old kings and their crusty circles would be over for good. But over the decades, an ageing Gaddafi had abandoned his youthful promise. Most of his people generally forgave him this, lulled as they had become into submission by oil wealth and the spectacle of his rule. Yet there came a point when the youth, starved not of money or bread, but of the very idealism and hope that was Gaddafi’s biggest promise, took him down.

While Berlusconi and Gaddafi had figured out that in politics, it is actually very easy to get away with breaking promises, what they did not count on is that politics is not everything. By neglecting the very things they promised to do for fear that it would rock the boat when they could easily remain in power without taking such risks, their pragmatic timidity created the monsters that would ultimately become their undoing.

That’s the lesson that applies to Zuma. When he arrived, he was going to shake things up, carry the energy of the struggle to the new generation. He rode to power on a wave of anger at Thabo Mbeki’s tone deafness to the disengagement, powerlessness and anomie facing millions of young South Africans, only to then promptly forget about it. And it’s precisely the spiritual void left by this neglect that has nourished the likes of Julius Malema.

Zuma’s undoing will not come from voters defecting to the DA and NFP, and it will not come in the form of a sex scandal, a dodgy tender, a corruption probe or even a successful lawsuit. Like Berlusconi, all that has become part of his charm. No, Zuma’s undoing will come from his own big problem, one that, for all his combativeness, he has been too timid to face: the youth.


  • Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union's largest nuclear submarine base.


  1. Zakes Mdada Zakes Mdada 9 November 2011

    A very interesting analysis. Mr Zuma may be unfortunate in the sense that the SA economy faces a ‘perfect storm’ – a global crisis, the decline of mining, very high inflation, unemployment, the gradual winding down of manufacturing and a growing bloated welfare state. You may be right that doing nothing is no longer an option. SA needs to become globally competitive to get the youth into the economy. And there are just too many vested interests – from business, unions and above all the state – to make the hard choices that are needed.

  2. Silvia Silvia 9 November 2011

    Very intersting analisys Vadim, you really got it with regard to Berlusconi!

  3. Reasonable Reasonable 9 November 2011

    Political blogs can be so boring, but your style of writing is most engaging, young man!

    Jacob Zuma could have made a difference. Even with all his faults, most South Africans would’ve applauded him if he made some REAL effort to uplift the poor, stamp out corruption, and keep those so-called youth in check! Fail, fail, fail!

  4. Lenny Appadoo Lenny Appadoo 9 November 2011

    The prospect of the downfall of Zuma is not exactly one to be savoured. What’s waiting in the wings is as bad, if not worse.

  5. Chrips Chrips 10 November 2011

    Bravo!! You really do have knack for providing insightful comparisons between different countries/cultures and exposing leaders (?) for what they are. Keep up the good work.

  6. peter peter 10 November 2011

    A perfect assessment of the ” charming ones”. As Julius may also be considered charming, at least to those who realize that beneath all the charm lies a devious mind, we may well end up with him as the next leader of this nation. As we are now rated in second place as the most corrupt nation on the planet, we can look forward to improving that to first place and realize our ambitions to at least be the best at something.With leaders of this calibre that should be a cake walk. Remember that JZ has a private line to heaven so don’t count on his demise just yet. 2012 is full of promise as far as chaos and disorder is concerned. Have a great day. There are not too many left.

  7. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 10 November 2011

    Any idiot can become a president and usually does!. I pray for the day when a capable, honest, upright and law abiding person becomes our President and leader.
    The biggest mouth and the biggest belly are all that is required these days.
    South Africa has a president but we do not have a leader. Priorities of presidents’ is on how to fill their own bellies and not those of their subjects.
    We need to have qualification criteria for all government ministers and officials. Sadly the only qualification needed is to be part of the gang.

  8. The Creator The Creator 10 November 2011

    Berlusconi is falling, indeed, because he is incompetent and self-indulgent, like Zuma and like numerous other politicians one could name. But he is particularly falling because the European banks need to get him out of the way in order to raid the Italian treasury. At the moment, nobody needs to raid the South African treasury, so the similarity between Zuma and Berlusconi is not that obvious.

    It is entirely possible that, ultimately, Zuma will be thrown out by a wave of repulsion at his mismanagement of the national economy and politics. But that won’t happen soon, and when it does happen, it will not be the nice, genteel murmur of bankers in suits which brings it about. It will be a very nasty mess indeed, which will probably make the 1980s look peacable.

  9. Save SA vote DA Save SA vote DA 10 November 2011

    Hopefully Jakes comes out of Mangaung ok – it’s not looking good though I agree. He will need to do more for the left, without killing the economy entirely. Otherwise the alternatives will lay waste to our prudent growth over the last 20 years and it will all have been in vain.

  10. Thokozani Thokozani 10 November 2011

    I’m just wondering, that in realistic terms, that is if Vadim were to bother himself with reality which he, of course doesnt, how much difference in real terms should a person who took over the reigns of power almost five years ago could have managed to undo a deepseated problem of youth unemployment within this period of five years while the global system is tumbling down due to rampant corruption.

    If Lehman Brothers were a South African, I am sure Zuma would have either been accused of corruption or supporting it. But because it happened in the erstwhile US and Britain, we are fed stories of how they are gradually rising from the ashes. Noone is saying anything about who caused these ashes.Noone acknowledges that we had to contend with these problems even though they were not our making.Hypocrisy

  11. Thokozani Thokozani 10 November 2011

    The other problem I have with regards to Zuma critics is that ( just like the Creator is insunuating that Zuma has mismanaged the economy, although he/she has not bothered to support this with any shred of evidence) he was accused of this mismanagement of economy long before he was in charge of it. It makes one wonders whether is this a fair judgement or it is simply an emotional ranting of a disgruntled blogger who thinks his personal interest was not served when Zuma was elected-which will, in all likelihood, have nothing to do with his ability to manage the economy.

  12. MLH MLH 10 November 2011

    1. I don’t believe JM is next in line, although I agree he’ll be waiting in the wings for
    his moment of power.
    2. We’ve seen no sign of anyone strong enough to guide the country to where it could withstand JM.
    3. Vadim always manages a different take on the obvious and makes for a fascinating read. His thoughts jump about three times further than those of the average South African. Great post.

  13. C C 10 November 2011

    Vadim one thing you forgot to mention and which has undoubtedly contributing to Berlusconi holding on to power for so long: there has been no valid alternative to the right wing coalition of parties he represents for years. Left of the centre and outright left wing parties have not been able to put forward a valid alternative to Berlusconi since the times of Romano Prodi (who during his short time as prime minister managed to put forward some interesting and meaningful reforms, much more than Berlusconi had done in the 10 years before him). Yet he was never a charismatic leader as Berlusconi, hence his inability to keep the unite the left. As an Italian, if you asked me ‘who are you going to vote in the next elections’ I’ll reply that I’m not going to vote….because there’s no one worthy of my vote, both right and left.
    In South Africa you’re not faced with the same dilemma, you have a healthy opposition party that is slowly and steadily gaining more and more support in the country and you’re effectively moving toward a two party system, something that Italy has not known in almost two decades.


  14. Donald Knight Donald Knight 10 November 2011

    Peter Joffe, you’re on the nail…here, in Taiwan, if you want to have a government job, you have to write exams…

  15. Nicholas Nicholas 10 November 2011

    Berlusconi may have fallen for the reasons you have espoused which were btw most enjoyable thank you… Will President Zuma be next? … i doubt it….

  16. Char Coal Char Coal 10 November 2011

    This was a most interesting and informative comparison and correlation.

    I agree with Donald Knight. Peter Joffe has, indeed, hit the nail on the head.
    The ANC government is a ‘jobs-for-pals’ operation – no need for honesty, ability or purpose
    Its main criterion is how much can you get away with – literally and figuratively.

    The suspension of Malema is not a victory. It is a symptom.
    It should have happened ages ago. Why did ANC allow the cancer of Malema to continue for so long? And he’s still going to appeal … and as usual, this will drag on … and on …

    What about all the corruption and scandal that epitomises the ANC leadership, from the president down? ….. It doesn’t go away because they finally did something about a situation which should have been nipped in the bud ages ago.

    It is time for a change in mindset. Voting for the ANC out of a sense of loyalty, is like the definition of insanity: repeating the same mistake over and over again, and expecting a different result.

    We have a strong opposition party, which gains more potency and credence every day.
    It is an honest, non-racist and committed party – one that represents equal opportunity for all South Africans.

    Don’t be a sucker – be selfish: Vote for your own future. .

  17. Citizen Mntu Citizen Mntu 12 November 2011

    A very interesting perspective Vadim :)

    Two chaps who got in on high publicity, fave-rave scandals, etc. And both consequently unable or unwilling to lead their countries. Otherwise, of course, SA and Italy do not have much in common.

    Berlusconi supposedly broke the domination of guilds and unions.

    But Zoomer and the ANC kow-tow to these job-destroyers and they fear the genuine empowerment of the SA population through small- and micro-business, and through informal business. Zoomer and the ANC also fear the empowerment of the population through effective education.

    The ANC is interested only in crony-enabled industries such as metals, mining and construction. And is determined to restrict the empowerment of our Citizens by ring-fencing the Trough and keeping most of the population in feudal abjection while blaming others for a failed society.

  18. Nguni Nguni 12 November 2011

    Your comparison between Berlusconi and Gadaffi failed to take the ‘NATO effect’ into account. Gadaffi would have remained in power until death and been succeeded by one of his many sons (after lots of back-stabbing) had he not been bombed into oblivion. Had Italy suffered a similar fate: Berlusconi would have bombed back! He has more character than both Gadaffi and Zuma. – Zuma would have given up immediately as we have no functioning air force..

  19. Siphiwo Siphiwo Siphiwo Siphiwo 14 November 2011

    Berlusconi was ousted by Capitalism. Italians’ democratic rights have been stolen by capitalism. The government of Italy is now run by the ‘markets’.
    It’s increasingly becoming useless to vote these days, more especially when you know that, down the line, the markets will dictate the tenure of the candidate of your choice. :-(

    Zuma’s fall, however, will be home grown. He will be ousted by his own comrades, through internal party processes. This will not happen in Mangaung, but instead it will happen between 2012 and 2014– when everyone, the left, centre and the right, will be sick and tired of his cluelessness.

  20. Gaston Hitsman Gaston Hitsman 6 January 2012

    I don′t understand anything about Day 8 |, but it′s interesting to read. Wine Here

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