CAPE TOWN - At this year's World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, leaders from the world of business, government and academia were charged with the objective of finding ways to strengthen co-operation in an increasingly fractured world.

Headline growth at the time may have been healthier than at any time since the great recession, but it masked deep divisions, within societies and across borders.

South Africa, under new leadership and buoyed by the beginnings of an economic upturn, stood out as a beacon of optimism. Determined to herald a new dawn for the country, its leadership, under President Cyril Ramaphosa, succeeded in building trust among the international community for the reform programme it knows is necessary to place South Africa’s story back on track.

Now is the time to turn the goodwill into action. This week, at the invitation of the World Economic Forum, 70 leaders from global businesses will convene in Johannesburg to advise and devise new ways that the private sector can help to tackle the country’s deep-seated challenges.

They are here because they know that South Africa’s government cannot provide solutions on its own, and they are here because they know that a prosperous, fair and inclusive South Africa is in their long-term interest.

Top of the list of priorities for business is making South Africa a magnet once again for investment. One thing that was clear at our annual meeting is that the world’s best businesses want to invest and create jobs in the country. The challenge is rebuilding an enabling environment that allows competition to flourish.

According to the Global Competitiveness Report, South Africa’s long-term competitiveness is in decline, not simply because of chronic long-term challenges, such as education, but also in areas of past relative strength, such as the quality of its institutions and well-functioning financial markets. This decline cannot be allowed to continue.

Ultimate goal

The ultimate goal of investment is to create jobs and a more prosperous society. The urgency of this task is not lost on the government. As it looks to diversify and strengthen its economy, South Africa needs to attract more manufacturing jobs, but it must go further, with nothing short of a massive re-skilling drive to equip workers for success in the 21st century.

Improving the job prospects of South Africans is important, but so is building a fairer society. According to the Forum’s Inclusive Development Index, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with wealth and income highly concentrated.

A more inclusive growth model is urgently needed that encourages entrepreneurism, takes a zero-tolerance attitude to corruption, discourages rent-seeking and unproductive investing and provides a safety net for the displaced.

Lastly, global business leaders want South Africa to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technology is rapidly altering the terms of global trade. The implications for South Africa are profound and require a complete rethink of development strategy.

This means thinking beyond traditional manufacturing and services industries and applying the technologies of the future - the blockchain, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, drones and more - to place South Africa in the big league of future-ready economies. This approach must not be seen as an option.

South Africa’s challenges are not going to be fixed overnight. Building a fairer, more prosperous and more resilient society will be an ongoing endeavour. It requires restored trust and faith in institutions and governance. It requires commitment and energy from all of the country’s stakeholders. The international business community must play a part also.

Elsie Kanza is Head of Africa, World Economic Forum.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

-BUSINESS REPORT