Davos Diary Day Minus One: Eskom bosses wrong to pull out

President Jacob Zuma during a session about Africa at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (AFP)
President Jacob Zuma during a session about Africa at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (AFP)

In this commentary from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, I explain why it was very wrong for Eskom’s top three to pull out of the most concentrated learning experience anywhere on earth. The benefits of being exposed to the Davos community would have done them much good – especially the inexperienced new chairman and CEO. Those who forced the issue with Eskom, describing the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos as a “junket”, are wide off the mark. If the education is expensive, try ignorance. – AH

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ALEC HOGG: Good morning. It’s Alec Hogg. I’m coming to you from the World Economic Forum in Davos. Well, not quite the World Economic Forum because that only starts this afternoon and today is Tuesday, the 20th of January 2015. Davos Diary -1, you might call it Day -1.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Davos.

I’ve been approached by a few people doing radio interviews and other engagements where they’ve said, "well, what is the purpose of the World Economic Forum? Surely, it’s just a bunch of rich guys getting together, having a good time, drinking too much, eating too much, and swapping wives". Well, I can assure you the wife swapping doesn’t happen but outside of that. The two fellows here are a little advanced in years… But outside of that, what is a complete fallacy is that people come here, just to have a good time.

I can assure you that probably 70% of those who attend – the participants, that is – would rather be somewhere else, but they do come because others of their calibre are here as well and they also come to learn – primarily, to learn. If you get far in life, it is because you’ve understood that usually, you learn a whole lot more from keeping your mouth closed and keeping your ears open, than you do when you’re talking.

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I was a little concerned to see what happened with the Eskom delegation this year. They are sponsors of the World Economic Forum and have been for many years, and seeing the Eskom CEO, chairman and Steve Lennon (one of the executives) here, has become a little bit of a normal thing. I’ve watched Steve very closely and he works like heck, going out and meeting other people from his sector, learning a whole lot and no doubt, taking that back to South Africa.

This year it was quite important because Eskom has both a new chief executive and chairman, but neither of them are coming, and neither is Steve Lennon on the basis that some people describe it as a junket. Well, I would like to tell you that maybe for some it is, but for most of those who come here, it’s anything but. It’s an opportunity to get plugged into what’s happening in other parts of the world. It is also an opportunity to learn.

That reminds me of when Jacob Zuma came here for the very first time – that was after the Polokwane episode – where he replaced (at the last minute) Thabo Mbeki, even though he was not yet president of South Africa. That year, Kgalema Motlanthe led the South African delegation. Zuma, being the president-in-waiting and being the president of the ANC, was a very sought-after member of the delegation for the media.

Nick Gowling, who ran Hard Talk at the time for the BBC, stuck his microphone into Zuma’s face and said to him, “What are you doing here?” Zuma’s response was one of the best I’ve ever heard. He said, “Well, I’m here to listen and to learn”. Sadly, I haven’t seen President Zuma in many of the events/sessions, subsequent to that but one presumes that he will still be here to listen and to learn – perhaps doing it more privately than he did in the past – because that’s really, what it’s all about. It’s about understanding South Africa’s place in the world.

Remember, we have point-three percent of Global GDP. That means that the US for instance, is 75 times bigger than the South African economy. It’s like a guy from a small town going to the city, and there are many things he can learn in the cities, particularly the best cities in the word and that is what this is about – those of us coming from a rather isolated, small, middle-income country, to come and see what we can learn from elsewhere.

I believe that that’s what the South African delegation does best. It opens its ears and keeps its mouth closed. Of course, there are also other opportunities to promote the country, to reflect the diversity, and the solidity of its people, and its infrastructure etcetera. People who are going to make investments aren’t going to do that on meeting one or two in a forum like Davos. The foreign direct investment is determined by a whole lot of other things: the kinds of laws that are being promulgated, etcetera.

The most important thing here is for South Africa to understand what the rest of the world is doing. I was pondering about that over the last few days. What about all of those journalists who come here and write extremely critical articles about the World Economic Forum, saying that it is a junket and it causes the kind of furore that has chased away, the top team from Eskom this year?

Over the weekend, we were in London, on route to Zurich and I went to one of my favourite places on my bucket lists that I’d never visited before – the British Museum. My intention of going to the British Museum, after looking it up on the Internet, was to see an exhibition on 600 years of Germany and another one – a permanent exhibition – on The Enlightenment. When I arrived at the British Museum, it was an absolute feast for the senses.

The Rosetta stone was one of the first things we saw. I then ambled along to the German Exhibition to be told ‘sorry, the only time you can come in will be in four hours’ after the time that we were there. That meant a lengthy wait which, given the excitement and the attractions of London, was unlikely to be something that I was going to want to do.

As a consequence of that, I missed out on the German exhibition because tickets for the next people to be allowed in were sold beforehand and I didn’t realise this. The second thing that happened at the British Museum was that when I walked around to the area for The Enlightenment (or where The Enlightenment should have been), I was told that the permanent exhibition is not available at the moment.

There we had this smorgasbord of magnificent relics and objects from all over the world in one of the greatest museums in the world and the two particular areas that I wanted to go to, were both unavailable to me. As a consequence, I refocused my attention and went through to the other bits that I could pick up and learn from and Davos is a little bit like that British Museum. When journalists arrive here from all over the world, they do not have access to everything.

The Swiss (and particularly, the World Economic Forum) is very hierarchical and you can understand it. There are only 2 500 participants. Those participants themselves don’t want to be swamped by 30 000 of the people who accompany the participants and indeed, a few thousand journalists who are here to report. As a consequence, the journalists who do arrive here are given various access badges.

As a result of that (not being able to get into the 600 years of German history exhibition or The Enlightenment permanent exhibition because they happen to be closed) ... In other words, some of the sessions here are closed off to visiting/reporting press. Some of those leave here with great resentments, thinking ‘why should they not have had the whole smorgasbord’ and then, write off the whole of Davos as a junket for the rich.

Well, it isn’t that. I can assure you, after 12 years of visiting that it is a learning experience unequalled by anything on earth – certainly, in five days. It is an opportunity to bump into people that you read about online or you see on the television sets and to in fact, engage in conversations with these people, informally and in a manner of asking questions – of course, respectfully – but in a manner that you would never have access to in a different field.

It is also an opportunity to sit in sessions where you hear the best in the world in their fields explain the latest developments, to absorb all of this information, open your mind, go back home, and perhaps make a difference. That’s what I’m hoping to do this time around. It’s what I’ve attempted to do the 11 other times that I’ve attended the World Economic Forum in Davos and every year that I get here, I realise once again, what a privilege it is.

This is Alec Hogg from BizNews, reporting from Davos.

Video: The WEF's managing director for Information Technology, Jeremy Jurgens, takes Alec Hogg through one of the latest inventions unveiled at Davos 2015:


* Biznews editor Alec Hogg will be covering the World Economic Forum from Davos in partnership with Brightrock for Fin24. See his current stories on the forum:

- Alec Hogg: What to expect from Davos
- Davos Stars: Professor Klaus Schwab – Best connected man alive - South Africans get special treatment in Davos
- Record participation at the WEF 2015

* For more in-depth business news, visit biznews.com or simply sign up for the daily newsletter.

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