Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Pikoli suspension adds to turmoil and confusion

It is difficult to comment on the suspension of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Vusi Pikoli, without merely adding to the reams of speculation. But I have been asked by blog readers to address this matter. In this piece, however, I prefer to focus on the general, rather than the detail which will in any case be dealt with in the inquiry headed by Frene Ginwala.

The suspension will feed into diverse and divergent views regarding how President Thabo Mbeki as a leader is read and understood. The issue of his leadership style and his legacy has been canvassed in books by William Gumede and Ronald Suresh Roberts. Is he a ruthless leader who deals swiftly and decisively with his opponents, or a visionary president and one of Africa’s greatest thought leaders? Another book many years in the pipeline, by Mark Gevisser, is also set to tackle these matters when it eventually hits the bookshelves. The suspension of Pikoli, coming so soon after the dismissal of Deputy Minister Noziswe Madlala-Routledge, certainly further muddies the waters as far as these assessments are concerned.

The suspension is indirectly or directly linked to the succession battle. This battle is engendering a widespread contaminating effect. It is the cause of much of the rot (where rot refers to infighting, factionalism and inexplicable divisions) in the ruling group. The succession struggle is bringing many issues that have been bubbling under the surface to a head. These issues relate to shifts in values and the ethos within the ruling party; the impact of class differences at the base of the ANC; the drive for rapid accumulation among some ANC leaders and deep disagreement about processes for resolving internal differences in the ANC.

Ambition is afoot and there seem to be no guidelines in place that inform how such ambitions plays out.

It is clear that the knives are out. Some are already the subject of mudslinging and damaging leaks while others tailor or conceal their positions bearing in mind that a wrong move can damage their prospects for more senior political or governmental positions in the future.

Some added reflections:

a) There has been poor handling of the suspension. Mbeki is normally a master strategist, one who is usually several moves ahead of the opponent. In this case, he does not seem to have been well served by either his office or government communications. Pikoli's suspension seemed to be accompanied by a poor media strategy. Media 101 will tell you that on matters of great import you provide a background briefing to several key journalists, press statements are prepared, a person is deployed to provide sound bites, and spokespersons are primed to deal with all anticipated media questions. In this case – and uncharacteristically so – for government communications, many of these things were apparently not in place.

b) There is now a need for a further response, beyond the immediate requirements of managing fallout on the specific issue. Now people want someone senior to acknowledge that there is consternation and turmoil in the land. They want to hear the captain from the deck give his view on the state of things and the way forward in these confusing times. Is this not the time to have the President or a designated Minister address a variety of concerns (to rally the national mood, as it were) through a special public service announcement?

c) The approach of some government officials needs to be addressed. Apparently some officials cannot distinguish between legalism and leadership and prefer to trot out bureaucratic and technical answers in situations where greater responsiveness is required. On a number of occasions, when there is widespread concern about a particular issue and an appeal for more information, public officials respond with a legal response. They retort that the letter of the law does not require the executive to explain or give information. That may be so, but what has happened to leadership and the open and consultative ethos that underlies our democracy? If public officials continue to punt this line, the result will be greater alienation of people from the political process.

The current period is a major turning point in all sorts of ways. In one sense, in the view of a senior ANC person I spoke to recently, the present developments in politics indicate that the “(transformation) project is in crisis”. Others prefer to see the conflict, confusion and fragmentation of leadership in the high echelons of the ruling party as the “growing pains” of democracy. Whichever way one looks at it, we need to find a way out of the turmoil and to restore confidence in political leadership.

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