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This is a milestone year for Brazil. On September 7, the country celebrates the bicentenary of its independence from Portugal. It will be 200 years since Dom Pedro I, regent of Brazil, shouted “Independence or death!” on the banks of São Paulo’s  Ipiranga River,  fed up with taking orders from the Portuguese royal court. 

On October 2 Brazilians vote in one of the most critical elections in two centuries as an independent nation. Leading in the polls is 76-year-old former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at 45%, who is likely to win in the first round. President Jair Bolsonaro trails at 32%. 

Bolsonaro’s presidency has been a disaster. In a last-ditch effort to shore up his popularity he had Pedro I’s embalmed heart flown in from Portugal as guest of honour for the bicentenary celebrations. Little wonder that most Brazilians reject him . But why do many Brazilians want Lula back?

Lula is a veteran politician and elder statesman. He was president from 2003 to 2010, a period of unrivalled prosperity in Brazil’s history, when the country enjoyed record low unemployment, its economy became the world’s sixth largest (it is 13th largest today).  Brazilians of all classes travelled the world, and its businesses expanded and invested internationally, including in Africa.

Thanks to Lula’s Bolsa Familia allowance welfare programme for families, millions were lifted from extreme poverty and could go to school. Bolsa Familia also created an economic boom as a result of the new, if modest, spending power of previously disenfranchised people (something opponents of SA’s proposed basic income grant should note).

Lula also invested heavily in education, especially in Brazil’s interior, enabling children to go to school and young people to attend university near home, without so they did not need to move to cities for tertiary education. The result was a highly educated, young middle class far more employable, far better off than their parents and grandparents.

SA would do well to emulate such policies. One can uplift poor people only if the economy is thriving, with investor friendly policies. Lula is acutely aware of this. His policy of a strong economy with strong social inclusion had a remarkable effect on Brazil socially and economically. Yet before his election in 2002 investors fled Brazil in fear of his presidency.

Lula had been a hard line trade unionist for much of his life, and the fear was that he would nationalise the economy. But he nationalised nothing, and private enterprise prospered. Despite proof to the contrary, many of Bolsonaro’s followers still proclaim that once re-elected Lula will turn Brazil into a communist state. 

Lula left office in 2010, with record approval ratings. But in 2014 the Operation Car Wash investigation into corruption at state-owned oil groups Petrobras and major construction groups was launched by the inexperienced judge  Sergio Moro. He pinpointed Lula as the mastermind behind this corruption, and in 2018 Lula was sentenced to almost 12 years in prison.

He ended up serving just less than two years before being acquitted on appeal. It turned out that Moro collaborated with the prosecutor, Deltan Dallagnol, to secure Lula’s conviction in a display of judicial bias. Brazil’s supreme court overturned Lula’s convictions for reasons such as lack of credible evidence and Moro’s bias. Moro convicted Lula, almost farcically, of an “undetermined official act” adding, ironically, that no-one is above the law.

Many Brazilians venerated Moro for standing up to the corruption that has plagued Brazil for many years. For many it was hard to accept that the man they saw as their saviour from corruption had feet of clay. Many still think  Lula was guilty. But he was really guilty of rampant corruption, there would have been no need for judge and prosecutor to collude.

Lula’s conviction removed him as frontrunner for the presidency in 2018, paving the way for Bolsonaro to be elected. When Moro was appointed justice minister in Bolsonaro’s government many thought that his reward for getting rid of Lula. Moro later resigned as minister but continues to try, not very successfully, to carve out a career as a politician.

For SA and Africa it is good news that Lula is favoured to win the October election. Under Lula, Brazilian businesses and tourists poured into SA. Under Bolsonaro SA slipped off Brazil’s radar. Under Lula there were up to 12 weekly flights between SA and Brazil operated by two airlines, while under Bolsonaro there are none. I hope that a Lula administration encourages one or more Brazilian airlines to resume direct flights to Johannesburg. The potential demand is huge.

Lula was vilified and persecuted while his political opponents lied about him and his policies, trying to eradicate his legacy. But the facts speak for themselves. Lula propelled Brazil to become a major international economy, made Brazil more respectable than it ever was, and gave dignity to millions of Brazilians. He can do it again.

• Myburgh is an attorney practising in Johannesburg and São Paulo.

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