Politics, South Africa, World

Reporter’s Davos notebook, final entry: Conversation with Sipho Pityana

Reporter’s Davos notebook, final entry: Conversation with Sipho Pityana

It is a general rule of large gatherings involving people from many different places that the fourth day is a write-off. By then, everyone is tired, they’ve met who they wanted to meet, drunk what they’ve wanted to drink, and hopefully avoided who they wanted to avoid. The World Economic Forum meeting in Davos is no exception. Good time then for a catch-up with Sipho Pityana, about the state of the world, the ANC, and the fact that if this meeting represents the world economy, Africa is falling by the wayside. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The number of accents on the streets of Davos had started to diminish sharply by Friday morning. Sharp Swiss German was heard for the first time in four days, people with skis were back, suits finally seemed to be out of place. It was a chance to draw breath and consider what had happened in the preceding three days.

But it was also an opportunity to find Sipho Pityana, and ask him different questions based on the different hats that he wears. He’s been in the news for his fiery condemnation of President Jacob Zuma, and his leadership of the new Save SA grouping of civil society groups. The fact that he comes from the ANC has given that criticism a real power that many other people do not have.

So, my colleague and I popped into the Brand SA headquarters with two main aims. First, to say goodbye and thank you and cheers and see you soon and wow you guys were great. And second, to use their wi-fi one last time.

And then, on just 200 metres – as the Google Maps indicated – to another hotel. Instead of the long, ardous lung-collapsing trek that Maria Ramos had forced upon us, it was a gentle stroll. Until we came to another steep incline. This time, the direction was down. Easier than up. But much more dangerous with a backpack and tripod and a general lack of experience in walking on ice. After some maneuvering, and a little gentle cussing, we made it, and waited in the warm environs of an accommodation slightly classier than where your correspondent has been staying.

I’ve only met Pityana once or twice before, first in the Midday Report studio, and then last Tuesday he sat next to me during Cyril Ramaphosa’s event. He’s warm and friendly, and has a genuineness that people who occupied high office but no longer have anything to hide sometimes have. It’s almost as if they’ve been set free from their boundaries and can say what they want.

And then we set up in a small corner of the hotel, asked them to turn down the muzak and switched on the microphone. (Swiss Muzak is probably the worse muzak on the planet, all old Euro-pop with some sort of slushy pan-pipe accompaniment. Think of the musical opposite of anything written by Trainspotter).

I started with his AngloGold Ashanti hat, with a question about Donald Trump, sorry, President Donald Trump, and what many here see as a new Threat to Civilisation As We Know It. Of course, as a global miner, he’s worried. But he also got in a point about governance, and how Trump sets the wrong example, with his conflicts of interest, and the tone in general that he has set. It was tempting to immediately jump from there to Zuma, but with uncharacteristic journalistic patience, I held on.

I first wanted to ask him, as a South African, about something I’d found quite distressing while strolling/trudging/crying around Davos. The complete and utter lack of black people here. As an indication of Africa’s lack of participation in the world economy it was utterly startling. Pityana too was “taken aback” by this, it had struck him as well. “Not only is there hardly a conversation about bringing the participation of blacks and those conversations, but there is sometimes just a conversation about the world and no reference to Africa at all.”

It does show you how small Africa’s economy is compared to everyone else.

But that is no excuse for the World Economic Forum. They had a debate about “The Race against Racism” with links to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. That’s fine, but where were the people from Africa on the panel, the people who would represent Africa? And what about a debate about structural racism in the world economy? Or how about a debate about integrating Africa properly, or even just something properly meaningful about growing Africa’s economy? It really demonstrates how Africa has slipped down the global economic agenda. Of course, the WEF could well say that many of the delegates here are preoccupied with “their” own problems, Brexit, Trump, etc. Doesn’t that suggest that the problem is with the selection of delegates, with how the whole “system” of the WEF works?

Anyway, Pityana and I then moved on to matters ANC. He’d obviously watched Ramaphosa earlier in the week, and it was worth asking, if just for the nuance of the reply, whether he thought Ramaphosa is the right person to take over from Zuma. On the face of it, Pityana is surely more in the Ramaphosa camp than the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma camp. But he doesn’t really want to be in any camp. He has a much broader and more insightful critique to make about the ANC, and about the National Working Committee decision last Monday that people in the party should no longer discuss succession, and particularly, name names.

Exactly the process that we are going through now with trying to suppress open conversation about leadership landed us in the situation where we landed up with the wrong leader,” was the way he put it. He is exactly right. What happened last week has serious echoes with what happened before Polokwane, with all sorts of bids to suppress the conversation. And look at how that ended. Pityana appears to want to open up the entire debate. He is surely correct in that. But it’s hard to see that happening before December. As always, those in charge like to keep the structures that put them there in the first place, and so it’s very difficult to force an organisation to change. Especially when the stakes are so high.

As your correspondent starts to head home, first on a train trip to Zurich during which the temperatures should finally start to rise, and then finally on a plane to the sun of home and the warmth of our people, there is cause for optimism, and cause for pessimism. Government and business seem to be in a better space than they’ve been in years. We should try not to be too cynical about that (and being a journalist means having to try really hard). But the world is not in a good place, we are often led by what happens in the global economy, and what could happen is quite scary. And then there is the fact that actually, we are a small player. Both as a country, and, sadly, as a continent. DM

Photo: Sipho M Pityana, Chairman, AngloGold Ashanti, South Africa speaking during the session “Investing in Peace” at the Annual Meeting 2017 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 18, 2017 (Copyright by World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek)


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