Former president Jacob Zuma and the late Muammar Gaddafi. Picture: GCIS
Former president Jacob Zuma and the late Muammar Gaddafi. Picture: GCIS

"The way to make money," predatory oilman John D Rockefeller once said, "is to buy when blood is running in the streets."

An easier way is when another predatory oilman — say, a Libyan dictator — gives it to you, as the late Muammar Gaddafi allegedly did to former president Jacob Zuma when real blood was running in Gaddafi’s streets. The money, $30m in cash, was apparently a rainy-day fund to pay for Gaddafi’s expected legal troubles; or perhaps to buy a plot in Nkandla, a fresh start, maybe, away from a country on fire?

The characters in this hammy farce are utterly Shakespearean. There is the sleazy "king" with a malevolent but slipping grasp on his fiefdom; his equally dodgy "friend" ruling a beleaguered realm far to the south; and then there’s the third king — a real one in a tiny mountain kingdom — who for reasons still fuzzy seems to have suffered an attack of conscience and confessed to yet another king that he is sitting on all the first king’s money which the second king gave to him for safekeeping.

It would be funny except that this is real blood money.

Despite his earnest just-society proclamations in The Green Book — "There is no democracy without people’s conferences" is just one of its gems — the Brother Leader was as debased as any dictator, ruling Libya with all the usual apparatus: fear, secret police, intimidation, murder and payoffs to loyalists.

In 2009, I went to Libya as the guest of the now-defunct Afriqiyah state airline which, briefly, offered dirt-cheap flights between Joburg and Tripoli (and which might have once flown a fat cargo of greenbacks southwards).

Everywhere we went, we were trailed by a pair of secret policemen who were about as subtle as a train crash. "There are three things you never do here," the airline’s German station manager said sotto voce one night: "Don’t drink alcohol, don’t speak to unaccompanied women, and say nothing about Brother Leader."

If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas. One wonders if the dollars might have paid for Zuma’s own legal troubles? Until the Libyans came asking where their moolah was, of course.