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.


Vadim Nikitin

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...

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