The lowdown from Davos

2014-01-27 10:00

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The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, is something else.

The easy appellation of a gathering of the “global elite” doesn’t quite cut it.

Yes, there are 2?500 chief executives in the alpine village.

Yes, it brings together an unprecedented number of world leaders (I saw Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Israel’s Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu within a hair’s breadth of each other several times).

But there are also about 30 Nobel laureates walking the halls among authors, artists, philosophers and superstars.

Matt Damon won an award for his work with water, Bono signed an agreement with a bank to fight Aids, and Goldie Hawn talked about the value of meditation and mindfulness. Cabinet Minister Trevor Manuel spoke about the value of our oceans with swimmer Lewis Pugh, who is British, but calls Cape Town home.

South Africa has a good story to tell in Davos.

There were at least 100 South Africans at the Swiss gathering.

Our most beautiful representatives: Patrice and Precious Motsepe. Our most industrious: Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, whom I saw chatting animatedly with the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde and Larry Summers, Financial Times assistant editor Gillian Tett and the Saudi Arabian finance minister.

Idris Elba, an actor and DJ, played a set at a Google party and started it with the song, Free Nelson Mandela.

Because of South Africa’s founding story, because of Nelson Mandela and our position in Africa (as a strong gateway), our country is well presented across panels and interest areas in Davos.

A countercyclical infrastructure spending plan found great investor interest. So did energy plans. But nothing can be taken for granted.

A simple idea

South Africa has too many stories to tell. This is not a bad thing, but as I read our documents for investors, there was so much it was difficult to say what our one direction is.

Let me give you an example. South Korea’s Prime Minister Park Geun-Hye bills her country’s creative economy as the key growth driver. Yes, there is a lot more to the country, but she has chosen an undergirding idea. Japan’s Shinzo Abe punts a clear message of three-step reform. I put this to Gordhan, who insists there is a central spinal idea to South Africa: “inclusive growth and jobs”.

But to be a global player needs further distilling, perhaps to showcase our place on the continent or to build on Mandela’s legacy to showcase a futurescape which might take in the massive rebuilding project (the reshaping of South Africa through infrastructure) with progress on education, given that children and the youth were an abiding interest of the elder statesman.

At Davos, one of the key cultural events was a film screening of Long Walk to Freedom. A gallery hung an exhibition to honour Madiba. He is our greatest brand.

Social justice, as championed by Pope Francis, can be an ambient idea upon which to build a developing democracy.

Goldman Sachs country head Colin Coleman says: “South Africa has, broadly speaking, entered into a much more difficult position.”

This is for two reasons: the tapering of quantitative easing by the US and Nigeria, which is rapidly becoming Africa’s go-to country.

At Davos, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan was everywhere with his large team bedecked in green-and-white scarves making a branding statement.

On Tuesday, he hosted a lunch introducing the gathered elite to ogusi soup and sea snails, among other west African delicacies.

“Nigeria’s getting a lot of attention and South Africa, as the springboard [to Africa], is under attack. South Africa has to deal with strikes properly,” says Coleman, who is the ANC’s favourite banker. The Goldman Sachs report on two decades of freedom tracks economic and social progress in South Africa and is included in the ANC’s manifesto.

He says the South African lens should focus on two areas?– to resolve the tension between spending and efficiency, specifically in education and health, and to resolve the tension between wage growth and productivity.

Wages have increased and productivity has slowed with billions of rands lost to strikes last year.

Nothing unusual about us

But turbulent labour is not unusual in South Africa.

In fact, a key theme of our Cabinet delegation is that what our narrative tends to view as unique to South Africa are global challenges.

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies is part of a delegation showcasing South Africa as an investment destination.

He said: “We are not unique in having strikes. The strike is fairly localised at the moment.”

He had sat on a panel at Davos with other resource-rich nations and said mining often attracted protest, either from unions or communities in which they were based.

The minister said he and the team had a harder time with the South African investment community than with global investors who accepted strikes as a factor of modern economies.

It’s the same with youth employment?–?which was identified at the WEF as a global hot button issue – as is inequality, which is now recognised as the biggest driver of political instability.

“We were ahead in identifying the problems,” said Gordhan.

Future focus

While there are areas of huge global synchronicity, there is one vital nerve where we are way behind the curve. The networked world is leaving us behind.

Where the big debates and showcases at the WEF were on the Internet of Things (e-commerce as an economic driver) and internet governance (in an era of surveillance), we are still talking access and speed.

While South Africa is still stuck in policy formulation and consultation, the new digital world is literally passing us by.

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