Singh at home in Pretoria and how!

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  • Published 18.10.11

Pretoria, Oct. 17: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived this evening after a tiring ten-and-a-half-hour, non-stop flight to attend Tuesday's IBSA summit in this beautiful South Africa capital of rolling hills dotted with a myriad jacaranda trees in all their purple glory.

In the alphabet soup of international groupings, the trilateral India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) group isn't quite top order and may seem a little irrelevant now that the more powerful Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) has expanded to become Brics, taking in South Africa.

But despite the "low brand value" of IBSA - a fact underlined by the absence of both national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai from Singh's delegation - the Prime Minister can look forward to some scintillating conversation tomorrow with two leaders who are personally his complete opposite but have much in common with him politically.

Unlike Singh, whose personal life has been eventless to the point of boring, his counterparts at tomorrow's summit - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and South African President Jacob Zuma - have led lives that are worthy of Hollywood biopics.

Zuma, a man with four wives and 21 children, has no formal schooling and joined the underground African National Congress (ANC) when he was merely 16 and became an active member of the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe when he turned 20.

A year later he was arrested and spent the next decade in the notorious Robben Island prison. After his release, he played a key role in establishing the ANC's underground structure in his native Natal province, steadily rising as a key leader of the party and the movement.

It is a measure of Zuma's chutzpah that the official CV in the ministry of external affairs' booklet mentions not just his skills in rugby and soccer but also that "he dabbled in ballroom dancing on Robben Island", adding that "South Africans know and love him for his prowess on the dance floor and his impeccable vocal chords". The booklet is diplomatically silent on other extra-curricular activities he is famous for.

Dilma, 63, who became Brazil's first woman President less than a year ago, has an even more fascinating biography than the colourful Zuma. Her father was an active member of the Bulgarian Communist Party who first fled to France and eventually to Brazil where he became a successful entrepreneur.

However, despite an upper-middle-class upbringing, Dilma - like Zuma - became a radical in her teens and was associated with various Marxist guerrilla groups that fought against Brazil's military dictatorship. She, too, was caught and jailed and underwent horrific torture in jail when she was just 25 years old.

She was first married to fellow radical Claudiuo Galeno Linhares and then to Carlos Araujo. Her second husband and partner for three decades initially headed a dissident group of the Brazilian Communist Party, and he and Dilma evolved politically - moving from one radical outfit to another till Dilma finally joined the Workers Party, headed by the charismatic Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Once described by the military establishment as the "Joan of Arc of subversion", Dilma today is said to have evolved from Marxism to "pragmatic capitalism" but remains "proud of her radical roots". She and Carlos divorced in the year 2000 (because he had a child with another woman some years earlier) and have a daughter.

Given the personal and political histories of Zuma and Dilma, Singh might seem like a staid old man in their company - but at this point they have a whole lot of things to talk about, actually.

All three countries are "emerging economies" at a time the old western powers are facing an unending economic crisis; all three are members of the G20 that will hold a crucial meeting at Cannes less than three weeks from now; and all three, for the first time, are non-permanent members of the UN Security Council.

As such, the three leaders have much to discuss by way of calibrating strategy on issues ranging from UN reforms to climate change, from the Eurozone crisis to the turmoil in Libya and Syria.

But the most interesting commonality - unstated in all the official briefings and releases - is that all three are reeling under corruption scandals and street protests.

A South African minister, Sicelo Shiceka, who was known to be close to Zuma, has been under fire for spending hundreds of thousands of rands on a trip to Switzerland to visit his girlfriend in jail. He is not the only one.

According to media reports, corruption is endemic in the most developed country in Africa and has been detailed in a report by Willie Hofmeyr, who heads the anti-corruption agency Special Investigating Unit. Hofmeyr has told the parliament that 20 per cent of all government procurements are siphoned off every year. In words that will sound very familiar to Indian ears, he said: "Our laws, regulations and policies are pretty good. But if there are no consequences to them being broken, if there are not enough people to investigate an allegation that rules have been broken, and to hold somebody to account, then the culture of impunity spreads quickly."

It's much the same story in Brazil - except that Dilma has taken some action since taking over power. She has sacked her chief of staff, five cabinet ministers and scores of officials after they were charged with corruption. Even so, Brazilian cities have been witnessing Anna Hazare-type movements, only on a much bigger scale.

Last month, thousands of people took to the streets in Rio de Janeiro shouting slogans such as "Clean Up Congress" and "Brazil is a gigantic country governed by a pack of rats".

Much like Hazare's movement, the leaders on the streets insisted that the protest was not against any particular party but rather against the corrupt practices of politicians in general, a report said.

Sounds familiar?

That, then is what makes South Africa, Brazil and India - with their growing middle class and big power ambitions, and yet hobbled by poverty, inequality and graft - a true trilateral grouping. But no one here knows whether Dilma, Zuma and Singh will discuss the scourge of corruption and how to deal with it or confine their dialogue to "higher" matters.