I've just finished my annual pilgrimage to Canadian cottage country. As always, the view from a canoe in northwestern Ontario gave me an oddly altered perspective on my current home in South Africa.
It wasn't just the cottage conversations, dominated by the peculiar Canadian obsession with the weather. My cottage neighbours began every encounter by apologizing earnestly for the unseasonable cloud and rain. In Johannesburg, nobody bothers discussing the weather, since the sunshine is as predictable as clockwork.
Perhaps the altered perspective came from the newspapers that we browsed at the lake. Canadian newspapers these days are elegantly slimmed-down and subdued, while South Africa is still blanketed with bulky 1970s-style broadsheets and rowdy banner headlines. Hawkers still flog the newspapers at Johannesburg traffic lights, while sensational headlines are printed onto posters and flaunted on street poles for motorists to ogle.
My local newspaper in cottage country, the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, was reassuringly dull. "Thieves target unlocked vehicles," one headline murmured, reporting a crime wave in the town of Geraldton, where a flashlight and two key chains were among the items stolen from four unlocked cars. The article said the police "remind motorists to lock their vehicles." I thought bleakly about my home in Johannesburg, guarded against armed intruders by an electric fence, a three-metre-high wall, motion detectors and alarm systems.
But the biggest difference revealed by the newspapers and cottage conversations was the contrast in our political scandals. While it's true that the mayor of Toronto is trying heroically to bridge the gap, most of Canada's political furors just cannot match the baroque extravagance of South African scandals.
The issues that provoke such excited Canadian debate – Pamela Wallin's travel expenses, Justin Trudeau's early career as a drama teacher or Bev Oda's $16 glass of orange juice – are sadly mundane in comparison to the sheer ambition of South Africa's most corrupt politicians.
Just consider the scandals that were erupting in South Africa as the Canadian media pursued Ms. Wallin's senatorial spending. There was the communications minister, for example, who engineered a lucrative business deal for her boyfriend and flew him around the world on 19 foreign trips at taxpayers' expense. When she was finally sacked from cabinet, her boyfriend allegedly tried to stall a parliamentary inquiry by asking a hit man to assassinate the chairman of the parliamentary ethics committee, according to a report this month in South Africa's biggest weekly newspaper.
While this minister was eventually fired, South Africa's police minister has managed to keep his job – despite overwhelming evidence of widespread police corruption. In the latest scandal in his department, it emerged that 1,448 police officers have criminal records. They included a police general, 10 brigadiers, 21 colonels and 43 lieutenant-colonels. Their crimes ranged from theft to armed robbery to rape and murder. All were allowed to keep their police jobs.
One police captain, welcomed into the force despite an armed robbery conviction in 1994 and an arrest warrant in 1998, was linked to a criminal syndicate that masterminded seven cash heists for millions of dollars. Perhaps it wasn't surprising that he thrived in the police force: The last two South African police commissioners were both sacked for corruption.
Then there's the flamboyant Julius Malema, ex-leader of the youth wing of the ruling African National Congress and a key figure in President Jacob Zuma's rise to power. He climbed the ranks of South African politics by denouncing "imperialists and capitalists" at every turn – despite wearing a $30,000 Breitling watch, driving luxury cars and building a mansion in Johannesburg's most exclusive suburb. He was eventually charged with fraud, corruption, money-laundering and racketeering – and is now leading a new party called the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Mr. Zuma has been embroiled in scandals of his own, including the revelation that he had recently fathered a love child and the discovery that the government had spent $27-million to furnish his palatial village home with "security upgrades" – including underground bunkers and tunnels, bulletproof glass, soccer fields for his bodyguards and even a tuck shop for one of his four wives to run.
But the most sensational scandal involved Mr. Zuma's close friends and business cronies, the Gupta family, who managed to use a South African air-force base as a reception hall for a private wedding.
The powerful family, hinting that the whole extravaganza had been approved by Mr. Zuma, was able to fly its wedding guests into the military base in seven helicopters and two airplanes, including a chartered jet from India with 217 passengers on board, under the guise of being an "official delegation," in blatant violation of numerous laws.
The inquiry into the scandal makes for a highly entertaining read. The wedding guests were given a red-carpet welcome at the military base and were chauffeured away in luxury cars with official blue lights attached, escorted by moonlighting police officers.
Among the 194 government personnel who catered to the wedding guests was an air-force colonel with the task of greeting the "delegation" and its supposed VIPs.
"No VIPs were identified," the inquiry found. "He ended up greeting everybody who greeted him."