For people in power some inclinations twirl around like a carousel. My new year reading concerns a rural president ill-equipped to oversee a modern economy, whose rackety administration was riddled with corruption. The sleaze in the republic being so pervasive, the commissioner of police even published an open letter, admitting, "the rottenness of the entire police force", but which, he lamented, he was unable to reform because of lack of support. This is not President Jacob Zuma, the capo of modern South African vice, but president Paul Kruger at the tail end of the 19th century. Historian Charles van Onselen, in his riveting new book, observes, "as in most systems characterised by disparities in power and wealth, the classic short-circuiting mechanism was corruption. In developed economies such as the US, where wealth is relatively well-entrenched within certain sectors, money is often used to acquire high political office. "In underdeveloped or persistently weak economies, where ...

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