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WEF wants to repair capitalism

Jan 22 2017 05:59
Sipho Pityana

A picture of Earth is shown on a giant screen behind participants of a panel session on the closing day of the 47th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week. The meeting brings together entrepreneurs, scientists, chief executives and political leaders. Picture: EPA

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President Jacob Zuma may have done South Africa – and himself – a favour by not pitching up for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

It remains unclear why he decided at the last minute to withdraw – perhaps it was the freezing 20-degrees-below weather, or perhaps he was uninspired about the central theme of the gathering, which was Responsible and Responsive Leadership.

The reasons for his absence matter less than the fact that it allowed greater visibility and presence of the leaders who could increasingly represent the face of a post-Zuma South Africa.

Freed from the burden of having to rationalise the decisions that led to South Africa’s misadventures this past year, the South African delegation – primarily Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and Trade Minister Rob Davies – were
able to focus on selling a credible story to potential investors and other governments.

And, it must be said, they did an excellent job.

READ: Gordhan defends SA's democracy at #WEF2017 in Davos

As a result, their messaging reinforced the perception of South Africa as an investor-friendly destination, and a nation which is – slowly, yes, but surely – shaking off some of the tentacles of state capture, and reasserting the values contained in our Constitution.

Our government representatives presented a profoundly different face to that of our president, who last year decided it wasn’t worth his time to attend a high-level panel of African statespersons.

They provided a lucid, eloquent exposition not only of the risks that face us as a country, but also our plans to tackle them, and in particular the urgency that is being applied to addressing inequality. It was an impressive display that seemed to embody the ideals of responsive leadership.

What became clear, after hours spent listening to a dazzling array of academics, activists, political leaders and innovators over the past week, is that South Africa is not alone in being at a difficult juncture.

READ: Davos: a far cry from responsive and responsible leadership

Virtually the entire world is struggling to understand, and manage, the reality of inequality, and how it manifests itself in global politics.

And, as in South Africa, the focus is increasingly on inclusive economic growth and improving social cohesion.

Painful change is inevitable and action is required. We must realise that those on the margins of society, and those left behind in a rapidly changing economy, can no longer be ignored by global leaders in government or business.

This year’s meeting had two elements in abundance that have perhaps not been as evident previously: urgency and introspection.

Firstly, introspection with respect to how last year’s WEF gathering had missed populist backlashed in the UK and the US that fully upended the existing world order.

Barely six months after an unexpected referendum result, British Prime Minister Theresa May told Davos delegates that she had resolved to wind back the clock and make a clean break from the European single market.

The risk that the French may usher in a right-wing xenophobe and follow suit is now no longer a remote one. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump defied all expectations to ride a wave of populist discontent and prejudice all the way to the White House.

Davos delegates are asking themselves how they didn’t’ see all this coming, and well they might – in the same way that Luthuli House may be asking why it didn’t see last year’s municipal election results coming.

Globally, the jolt from these two monumental election upsets has provided a timeous wake-up call to global elites.

WEF founder and chairman Klaus Schwab made an impassioned plea to political, business and civil society delegates to roll up their sleeves and do the work necessary to “repair parts of the capitalist system” in order to better link “social inclusion and economic growth”.

READ: ‘Davos class’ needs a lesson in realpolitik

The urgent need for the reform of global capitalism was a theme that ran through almost every engagement, made urgent by the yawning gap between rich and poor that simply can’t be ignored any longer.

The atrophy of the middle class in developed markets, which has now yielded such extraordinary, and worrying, political results, is also drawing much attention.

Swiss President Doris Leuthard hit the nail on the head when she told the gathering in Davos that we had known about the problems of inequality and social exclusion for many years, but had failed to resolve them.

What the WEF in Davos has put into sharp focus is that we need to translate the diagnosis of the world’s ills into concrete action to cure them.

Failing to do so risks plunging us into social turmoil from which we may not recover.

This emerging world order will require principled, decisive and resolute leadership that, in the words of China’s Xi Jinping, will be able to see every opportunity and face every challenge.

We will require leadership with the vision to chart a course through a world that an avalanche of technological advances will soon render unrecognisable from the one we live in today.

We will need a capable and ethical leadership that will intelligently and sensitively lead a national effort to tackle the multitude of challenges facing our country, notably the unconscionable scourge of corruption, growing inequality, access to and quality of education, meaningful broad-based transformation of the economy and the long outstanding issue of land reform.

In the same way that the US and the UK have had their wake-up calls, we South Africans have had ours.

Today, our country stands on the threshold of a change in leadership at the highest level, and we need to be certain that we – as a nation – decide collectively on the qualities that we will demand at every level in our national leadership. And then, crucially, ensure we get the leadership that embodies that ideal.

* Sipho Pityana is AngloGold Ashanti chairperson

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