PIKOLI – SOUR GRAPES, OR GRAPES OF WRATH?
THE Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel by John Steinbeck, to which the title alludes, tells of the desperation of migrant workers in the United States during the Great Depression. It sketches a critique of the unjust policies and practices of the time, through which rich land owners living in opulent excess, took advantage of thousands of families suffering in drudgery. Today the phrase “grapes of wrath” is popularly used to denote a coming reckoning, an imminent vengeance, to be visited on a powerful few for their oppressive acts. The juxtaposition of good “grapes” and fearsome “wrath”, indicates the paradox between the short-term enjoyments lapped up by the elite, and the impending doom invariably accruing to them. Steinbeck is recognized for having depicted brilliantly the universal struggles of the marginalized, and the illusive ideals of justice and equity that transcend selfishness and gluttony.
Having heard Vusi Pikoli comment on his new book which details his suspension and ousting as head of the National Prosecuting Authority, the question comes to mind, “is Pikoli lamenting his own loss of influence, or is his plea a notable warning?” Pikoli was accompanied this week by his long-time supporter and former legal representative, the esteemed Advocate Wim Trenove, and award-winning journalist Mandy Wiener, co-author of his memoir entitled, “My Second Initiation”.
Listening to these South African voices, two things struck me most. The first, was the seemingly endless host of criticisms leveled at the ANC, in its current state. The second, Pikoli’s constant affirmation of his loyalty to the party. When referring to the ruling elite, Pikoli especially, did not mince words. With a bruising array of criticisms Pikoli climbed in; “The ANC has lost the moral high ground”, “…has become abusive…”, he said, describing their relationship with state institutions as “… meddling, interfering…” and suggesting reflectively that perhaps the party’s leadership has ascended up the dark path of “hubris”. He continued, “We [the ANC] are squandering our freedom … and doing so with impunity”, explaining that “…some of the interest being served currently, run counter to our [the ANC] values”. Pikoli asked, “Why is there an atmosphere of fear? What are we afraid of?”. He described the ANC’s recent track record as “blemished”, “corrupt” and pointed to a general “erosion of rights” in the country.
Even Advocate Trengove bemoaned at length a loss of independence among state institutions, saying that there is, “a shortage of public officials with integrity”. He too used words such as “manipulation” and “abuse of power” to describe an overall decline in the standard of judicial independence, compared to that enjoyed (and used) by Pikoli in his day. What hit home most strongly, was Pikoli’s complaint, that “…even some cadres are destitute, not even able to bury their own dead.” The summative statement came from Pikoli, who said emphatically, “we are seeing an erosion of our political and civil liberties”, while describing himself as a “battered and abused wife”, giving assurances that his fidelity to his political marriage of 30-years, remains in tact. Why would he remain in the ANC if he feels so strongly that the party has lost its way? One might say, that Pikoli believes he is waging a battle for the soul of the ANC, and that in his view, it is a battle that strikes at the bedrock of our young democracy.
When asked why Pikoli was not more widely supported by his fellow cardres, he quoted them as supporting him privately, saying that they bleat, “the ANC is no more… “. He went further, saying that the ANC has lost touch with the values on which it was founded, and that OR Tambo had taught them the difference between “unquestioned loyalty” and “unquestioning loyalty”. The latter, a principled Pikoli said, is to be avoided. So what shall we make of Pikoli’s newfound voice and bold critique? Does he simply have sour grapes, having fallen out of favor with the inner-circle of the ANC? Is he too driven somehow by self interest? Or is he a lone crusader, sketching with Steinbeck the frail system that maintains our unjust status quo?
I found it fascinating that the title of the book is couched in culture. Wiener cleverly uses the mechanism of male initiation to put into cultural perspective the brutal, perhaps shocking, coming of age that Pikoli is said to have gone through at the hand of his ANC cadres. What is intriguing, is that the book can be viewed as a portrait of our current political culture. It gives a glimpse into the ways of our leaders, that is, if we are to accept Pikoli’s perspective.
To understand sub-cultures we look at a few factors: Each culture usually has a distinct language, or use of language, and symbols that define it. There are rituals, stories and routines that are repeated to maintain cultural undertones and overtones. Specially designed power structures and organizational mechanisms are used to exercise control, and secure the standards (or lack thereof), within which cultural norms are upheld. Underlying these manifestations, are values and beliefs, as well as strongly held ideas, that describe the inner world of the in-group. All these, as standard practice, are captured in laws and rules maintained by those in power.
Given this backdrop, Pikoli’s portrayal gives us plenty of insight into the political culture pervading South Africa, and in particular the ruling party at present. In terms of language, there is a clear overarching narrative – “We are in control … and it is our turn to benefit”. “We”, of course, referring not to the collective “we”, as “united South Africans”, but rather a nostalgic collective of liberation movement insiders. Ironically, in terms of symbolism, Zuma’s Nkandla quite appropriately serves as a bastion of the present cultural hegemony of a certain camp. Underlying the cultural system as it stands, is the belief that cadres ought to protect one another, and that loyalty is valued above integrity. These cultural norms are played out in our national power structures, and in their manipulation, and various forms of interference. As for the big idea that drives the current culture, it certainly is not, “non-racialism, inclusivity, and a celebration of diversity”. On the contrary, from Pikoli’s perspective, it is “self-preservation” – “a drive to accumulate wealth while maintaining power.”
Paradoxically, advocate Trengove noted, to restrain such a culture requires a culture of a different kind. It requires a culture of citizenship, that is willing to speak up, stand up, and confront injustice in all its forms. We are therefore, in his view, “in the early stages of citizen activism” as a country. Our only hope as a nation, he explained, is the rise of civil society.
As a Futurist and researcher interested in what’s ahead for South Africa and the leadership needed to secure our future, Mr Pikoli presents me with an interesting case. Having a solid track record as a public servant, a clean slate in terms of business interests, one might describe him as a transformational servant leader, authentically interested in the public good. So, “is he simply disillusioned and frustrated sitting on the outside of the ANC gravy train?”, or “is he foretelling of the grapes of wrath ahead, for a party that has been co-opted by selfish demagogues?” As one observer counseled, Pikoli can be likened to Beyers Naudé
of old, who, while being mistreated by his own, actually represented a true path to a better future. Has the ANC become as hollow and compromised as Pikoli suggests, or is endemic corruption and plutocracy the mere “…growing pains of a young revolution?” If Pikoli is right, then this discussion is no longer about him. Then, it is a debate about institutional independence, and the question of, how we can confront these challenges? Then it is about whether the ANC, has the resilience to forge a renewal within its own ranks, and exorcise itself off short-termism and materialism.
Pikoli’s willingness to speak out at this juncture suggests that voices within the ANC are deeply divided. That at the very time when the ruling party would have wanted to have unanimous agreement, given the looming economic challenges and political opponents before them, the likes of Pikoli are digging in. It remains to be seen whether Pikoli represents an authentic collective of aggrieved stalwarts, or merely a loan critic in the electioneering machine that is the ANC of 2013.
Marius Oosthuizen is a Futurist and principle consultant with CUSP Consulting (Pty) Ltd.
Writing here in his personal capacity.
Strategic Foresight Professional
CUSP Consulting (Pty) Ltd.
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“The best way to predict your future is to create it” – Abraham Lincoln