Just on six years ago, in the depths of the Jacob Zuma era and the ANC’s state capture project, I wrote a column highlighting two powerful phrases originating from South America that had been applied to the kleptocracy emerging in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Both also applied, with interest, to the state of Zuma’s capture of this country and its institutions.

The first was offered in the 1930s by Brazilian dictator Guitelio Vargas, who later won a rackety democratic election before committing suicide in 1954. His contribution to political life and thought was “for my friends everything, for my enemies the law”.

More recently the 2007 to 2015 presidency of Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (now back in office as vice-president) was defined by The Economist as “capitalism for my friends, socialism for my enemies”.

These lapidary epithets not only matched Zuma’s misrule here but well defined an enthralling book I was reading at the time, and that was the subject of the 2016 column. The book was the page-turning account of Putin’s kleptocracy by Bill Browder, Red Notice: a True Story of High Treason, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice.

Bear in mind this was two years after Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea, but years before the current full frontal and brutal invasion of the whole of Ukraine. But what Browder, who had first-hand experience of Putin’s pitiless execution of his diktat, discerned long before most others was the ruthlessness of the strongman’s modus operandi and his remorseless war against anyone who crossed him.

I recounted how Browder, as the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2009, attempted to use the Russian legal system to recover his company’s assets and expose their illegal theft by cronies of the Russian president. The essence of the harrowing saga was how his brave lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was murdered while handcuffed to a bedrail in his prison cell by eight guards in riot gear.

While the state concocted a fantastical cover-up story, Browder converted himself from a private equity maven into an international crusader for sanctions against the wrongdoers, and with unrelenting application became the foremost international opponent of Putin.

I thought the story, with a lot of caveats, had local salience. The rule of law here at the time was taking an almighty battering, but was less degraded than in Russia, and it was striking how both Putin and Zuma, by then fast friends, used state institutions as sites of personal plunder. I expected no further follow ups, but there were two of note.

The first was predictable: there was an angry letter of rebuttal  from the Russian embassy in Pretoria. Its spokesperson said that Browder himself was a criminal and hence the “red notice” arrest warrant captured in his book title, which Russia had trumped up against him. Less predicted was a staunch letter of support for the column by Browder himself, and his personal outreach to suggest we get together when I was next in London.

When we met a few months later I told Browder how struck I was on reading his account of the terrible circumstances of the Magnitsky’s prison murder, of its eerie parallel with the 1977 security police murder in Port Elizabeth of black consciousness leader Steve Biko.

Targeting assets

Browder said, having read Donald Woods’s account of the Biko murder in Cry Freedom, that the similarities were indeed striking. He familiarised himself with how Biko’s death and the cover-up offered by the apartheid state of this appalling crime became the catalyst for the international campaign of sanctions against the SA government.

Browder then set about using the anti-apartheid template as a model for his own campaign against the assassins of Magnitsky and their entourages, promoting across dozens of jurisdictions the enactment of so-called Magnitsky Acts, targeting the assets and movements of the Russian principals involved in the crime.

After Putin’s fateful aggression against Ukraine on February 24, and the ruthless crimes committed in its wake, the Magnitsky Acts have been widened to target and cripple Kremlin oligarchs and much of the Russian economy.

The perils and successes of taking on Putin and his regime in the manner pioneered by Browder is the subject of his new book, Freezing Order, a True Story of Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath. It will be the subject of a talk I will be having with the author on May 14 at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Though the book festival is happily in person again, for security reasons Browder will be beamed in via video link.

He is not the only authority who has made the link between the international sanctions campaign against apartheid SA and the current global boycotts, freezing orders and embargoes imposed against Putin’s Russia and its aggression.

Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey  Sonnenfeld drew up a list of corporates that were exiting Russia after the Ukraine invasion, causing a stampede of others to follow suit. He was described in The Economist as leading a “virtuous expression of repugnance against Putin’s murderous regime”.

Sonnenfeld also drew on the SA analogy. “He sees the corporate campaign against Mr Putin’s regime in the same light as disinvestment from SA in the 1980s, which he argues helped bring about the end of apartheid”, the magazine reported.

The principal beneficiaries here of the long international economic campaign against the previous SA regime, the ANC government, sees matters entirely differently. Far from joining any international campaign against Russia’s violation of international law and norms of decency, Pretoria has strained every sinew to placate and implicitly support Moscow — even singing from its songbook during our recent ill-starred turn at the UN General Assembly.

Beyond the abject hypocrisy, historical poverty and self-harming nature of our current stance, the more impenetrable question is “why?” Solidarity with the Soviet Union and sticking it to the West are two answers that have been offered. “Follow the money” (into the ANC campaigns account) has been a third.

An answer wrapped in a caution on the wider meaning of war in Ukraine was recently offered in the New York Times by its foreign affairs columnist, Thomas Friedman. “While the battle on the ground is ostensibly over who should control Ukraine, do not be fooled. This has quickly turned into the ‘big battle’ between the two most dominant political systems in the world today: free market rule of law democracy versus authoritarian kleptocracy.”

It is interesting which side the ostensibly democratic and freedom-loving SA government has chosen. And how it has so impoverished its moral capital and international reputation into the bargain.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA