Iqbal Survé: Davos 2020 a wake-up call for South Africa
Once the darlings of the African continent, South Africa’s sun has stopped rising, with WEF now embracing the rest of the continent as the answer to Africa 2.0, leaving the Southernmost tip of Africa firmly on the sidelines.
WEF has often been criticised for being elitist and pro capitalist, and sometimes, deservedly so. So it was refreshing (and necessary) for this gathering of global minds and decision makers to revert to its roots in 2020 and re-explore the notion of stakeholder capitalism v shareholder capitalism and what this means in the modern collaborative context.
Five decades ago, Professor Klaus Schwab who started the World Economic Forum, was engulfed in a heated debate with US economist and Nobel prize-winner, Milton Friedman, over the role of business being only to make profit and nothing else.
Schwab was one of the first to argue differently, believing that the role of business must be to engage firstly, with the employees of the organisation, secondly the customers, thirdly with society at large, fourthly shareholders and finally, the overall planet itself.
The planet, having largely been forgotten since the inception of WEF, finally got the attention it deserves, with WEF 2020 emphasising issues that affect all who live and breathe on mother Earth, such as climate change. I would need to write many chapters to truly do justice to the topic; suffice it to say, that time is running out and we all need to be a part of the solution.
Without fixing the planet there will be no economics of course, and when it came to economics, Davos threw up some interesting considerations around stakeholder and shareholder capitalism.
Lessons that South Africa needs to take heed of. Understanding the true meaning of a stakeholder relationship would be a start, but, South Africa is steeped in a shareholder mentality, which appears unlikely to change any time soon. This is made obvious by the series of current conversations around the privatisation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), for example.
Instead of embracing a progressive attitude and new ideological space where "stakeholder capitalism" could include employees into the mix of creating solutions (similar principles to Design Thinking), employees are isolated from what ultimately affects them. They have in essence, been disenfranchised.
This is not the way of the future world. The future sees business leaders standing up and being accountable, they are the moral compasses that guide their organisations. This is stakeholder capitalism in practice. After all, it makes sense that if the organisation is well, on every level, then the shareholders benefit.
I have had many different roles over the 12 years of my participation at WEF in Davos. From medical doctor and social entrepreneur and now to an invited business leader.
Each year and role have given me a different perspective and afforded me to witness and contribute meaningfully to not only discussions around shaping South Africa, but its role in the larger economic community. Since Nelson Mandela led us into democracy, we have been highly regarded with great expectations for us leading Africa into the new “connected” epoch.
It was beyond sad then, to feel and witness just how much the country has squandered its liberation dividend.
Delegates at Davos this year fell into three distinct categories: those best personified by Richard Quest of CNN, who blasted us in a video (that went viral), and who were openly and heavily critical of South Africa and its current administration, and in particular, the ANC.
The second being those with a “wait and see attitude” as to whether we can really deal with turning around state-owned enterprises, our low gross domestic product growth, unemployment, poverty etc.
The third were those who although sympathetic to us, are also supportive of the rest of Africa, increasingly looking to the continent as a place to do business, but excluding South Africa.
While business leaders and our Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, carried the flag high at this year’s gathering, encouraging investment and the like, President’s Cyril Ramaphosa’s absence left a noticeable void (especially given the number of other African presidents in attendance), that further contributed to South Africa’s increasing isolation.
Two notable initiatives that will have a deep effect on Africa were also launched this year: the Africa Growth Platform (AGP) and Africa 2.0.
I was delighted to see the presence of Mboweni and a number of African presidents at the launch of the AGP.
I was seated next to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and was impressed with his personable engagement with the assembled business community, presenting a very different approach to the DRC.
Similarly, the engagements I had with the presidents of Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana and listening to the finance minister of Nigeria, and the way she presented the country.
Africa is really coming into its own, which is also why next year, Davos Africa will, for the first time, have the Africa House, a formal venue for African leaders.
South Africa was woefully under-represented at the launch of the Africa 2.0 project – Wakanda theme – “the future of Africa”. Presented by Mamadou Toure and Kojo Annan (the nephew of Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the UN), there was tangible excitement about the digitalisation of Africa.
In attendance were several African presidents and government ministers and it was estimated to be the most well-attended event at Davos - people were hungry to learn about Africa; what is happening, what it has to offer in terms of digitalisation and technology.
Underlining South Africa’s insouciance, I was the only attending South African at this event.
Such a pity, as this event epitomised the potential this continent has to not only embrace technology, but use it to propel Africa beyond the established world.
Young Africans working in different parts of the continent spoke about their experiences, entrepreneurship and how they are using apps, technology, mobile phones, drones etc in defining a new paradigm for socio-economics.
Let me reiterate: Africans talking about the innovation and solutions they have created to address uniquely African issues. The energy and purpose of this event encapsulated the spirit of the new Davos, one where the youth demonstrated their “action” in dealing with world issues. The future is Africa’s digitalisation. Technology is a bridge between social inequality and capitalism.
At the opposite end of the spectrum though, South Africa looked like it had lost its way. Represented by the same old banks, insurance companies, with the only black people in attendance being Patrice Motsepe and myself, along with a variety of SOE chairpersons. No young black entrepreneurs. Whereas the Nigerian, Rwandan, DRC and Ghanaian delegations had multiple businesspersons, all embracing the new way of thinking.
South Africa needs to re-build its credibility if it is to be considered a serious part of the future of Africa. To do that, it needs to shelve old thinking, create the policies needed to move forward and listen to its youth - not just at Davos, but at home and on the continent - and involve all its stakeholders.
Dr Iqbal Survé is the executive chairperson of Sekunjalo Investment Holdings and Independent Media.