Guest Column

Sipho Pityana: Saviour or leader to nowhere?

2016-12-01 10:10

Yonela Diko

US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, speaking to the graduating class of the University of Virginia said, "Each of you as individuals must pick up your own goals. Listen to others but do not become a blind follower. Do not wait for others to move out. Move out yourself. When you see wrong or inequality or injustice speak out, because this is your country, this is your democracy, make it, protect it, pass it on."

When businessman Sipho Pityana earlier this year wrote a eulogy for Minister Mike Stofile it was widely celebrated as the act of an individual speaking out, moving out himself and not waiting for others. This was an individual courageously acknowledging that this is his democracy; he must do his part to make it, to protect it and to pass it on.

The nationwide response gave Pityana a sense of being a voice for many - that one courageous individual who must be a lamb led to slaughter to give courage to others. There were clearly a lot of people who felt the same way and he sought to galvanise those people and create a movement.

Speaking out, however, is less a political act than organising. Speaking out does not necessarily need tact or historical alignment. It just needs a citizen who decides to do so. This soon became evident to Pityana.

The people who responded to his call and the pictures that started circulating of two black CEO's among 20 white CEO's, halls predominantly filled by white South Africans, raised more questions than answers in a country whose biggest problem remains that of a colour-line.

Here is the first problem: an Afrobarometer survey conducted in late 2008 revealed that respondents in the Western Cape (which is seen as the last outpost of white dominance) had very little trust in the then newly elected ANC President. In that Afrobarometer results, only 13 per cent of respondents in the province said they trusted the president ‘always’ or ‘most of the time’. So back in 2008, before Jacob Zuma had even put in a single day in office as president, already 87% of the Western Cape's people did not want him as president. So when the majority of Pityana's respondents are white, over what they claim is a catastrophic Zuma presidency, it smacks of underlying hypocrisy and insincerity. Zuma's ratings with this particular section of South Africans have always been low, even before he became president.

Pityana wants us to believe that his latest 'Save South Africa' civil society campaign is different and is moved by a different wave than the ever present negative views on the president. Pityana is effectively saying his movement is better than the multiple #ZumaMustFall protests and campaigns. But his movement fails the litmus test.

The two glaring problems with Pityana's campaign is that firstly, we don't really know Pityana himself. Besides his much publicised speech at the Stofile funeral, not only don't we know the kind of man he is, but he has not really earned his position as civil society leader as yet, and the risk is that if we follow him, we may get lost.

It would have been great to hear even a word from him on various issues. First among these, as a business leader, his voice on the South African residents who played varied roles from shareholder, to beneficiary, to director, as identified in the offshore records contained in the Panama Papers. Not a single CEO showed remorse or shame about the illicit financial outflows revealed in the Panama Papers. As confirmed by former President Thabo  Mbeki, billions of dollars left our shores; money that could've given our economy a leap forward by a generation.

Pityana would have earned our support if he had even uttered one word when Fidentia's J. Arthur Brown threw the poor under the bus and destroyed the livelihoods of families already dealt a terrible hand by society. He could have called for proper scrutiny of the pension fund industry. And yet, he remained mum.

He certainly would have gotten our tongues wagging had he spoken aggressively against monopoly or cartel abuses, such as the bread price fixing scandal, collusion on stadiums, market distortions that create oligopolies in every sector in South Africa and the resultant entrenched inequality.

Did he say anything about the months on months of mining strikes that ended up giving us Marikana?

The truth is Pityana has not stood up against any social injustices in the past 22 years and yet he is now asking us to invest our energies and resources on his journey to ... no place in particular. Of course he is right to galvanise civil society where he feels there is weak political leadership. But does he have a social compact or programme to anchor our national vision?

It is almost counter-intuitive that so many CEO's, so many leaders of society, so many civil organisations, that is, so much power, is united, just to make an online petition, T-shirts and banners. It can be argued that such organised power is enough to fill the perceived void in government, and is enough to reawaken a perceived government going over the rails.

Maybe I speak too early. Maybe Pityana has a plan. He has organised very influential and powerful people, I hope he can maximise that influence.

* Yonela Diko is a spokesperson for the ANC in the Western Cape.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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