Reflections on 25 years of the World Economic Forum on Africa

Neal Chapman
Chairman, First National Bank of Southern Africa
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In 1990 the Reuters ticker in the Concourse Hall in Davos began reporting on President de Klerk’s unbanning of the ANC, the Communist Party, the PAC, and announcing the release of many held on Robben Island. The South African delegates stood open-mouthed in astonishment and delight. How fitting that this should be heard and viewed by more than 1,000 of the world’s top business leaders, heads of state and distinguished thinkers and economists.

Networking, always such a feature of Davos, began immediately.

Klaus Schwab’s vision had become manifest some time earlier when planning and networking began. He encouraged interest in the highest circles and brought about an international awareness of the huge task facing the key players inside and outside South Africa.

Network of trust

One of the first things that Schwab did was to choose a 26-year-old executive, Frederic Sicre, send him in 1990 to South Africa, carrying 40kg of World Economic Forum literature, and told him to find tomorrow’s leaders. Sicre’s charm, smile, boundless energy, with help from, inter alia, Bertie Lubner, Leon Cohen, Basil Landau and Peter Wrighton, built a network of trust and enthusiasm. His travels took him also into adjoining southern African countries as he built interest and contacts. This led to a series of conferences.

The first of the Geneva conferences was held in early October 1990 and brought to it many of the ANC leaders, including Thabo Mbeki, Tito Mboweni, Popo Molefe, Eric Molobi and Moss Ngoasheng, some of whom were in exile and all of whom were to play key roles in what lay ahead. This was the first inclusive meeting between political party leaders inside and outside South Africa and representatives of the business community. It led to the launch of what became known as the Thabo Mbeki/Barend du Plessis roadshow, which took them around the world to foster international support.

The second Geneva conference was held the following October and its theme was, Opportunities for Growth and Development in a Southern Africa in Transition. The subjects were wide-ranging and focused sharply on matters which later would dominate discussions at the World Trade Centre in South Africa.

Trevor Manuel and Mboweni both made significant contributions but at that stage had no idea of the roles awaiting them!

Schwab then turned his attention to the 1992 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting to be held in Davos and sought to bring the key personalities to it. Using all his considerable influence and involving all the Forum members who could add to the mission, he worked to achieve his goal.

Historic plenary in Davos

On 2 February 1992, Nelson Mandela, President of the ANC, and F. W. de Klerk, then President of South Africa, entered the Plenary Hall in Davos to address the World Economic Forum, setting the seal on the remarkable initiative undertaken by Schwab. The importance of the occasion and its contribution to the political and economic development of South Africa over the following years could not be over-emphasized.

Well over 1,000 delegates in the hall were held in thrall as President de Klerk and President Mandela described the momentous developments of the past months and their hopes and dreams for a new South Africa. The opening of parliament in Cape Town had been delayed to make it possible and the two presidents hugely impressed all in the hall with their dignity, gravitas and clear determination to make the transition work.

All felt the drama of seeing the South African President, whose government had held Mandela captive for 27 years, and Mandela himself sharing a public platform and a mission. We also listened to the address given by the leader of the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly, Mangosutho Buthelezi; and Jay Naidoo, Secretary-General of COSATU, spoke, as did John Hall, Chair of the Peace Committee.

Meeting world leaders

In the days preceding this plenary, Mandela had used the opportunity to meet many of the world leaders present and China’s leader, Premier Li Peng, visiting Davos for the first time asked Schwab to facilitate a private meeting with Madiba. Reporting on the meeting, Madiba said that Li Peng had made it perfectly clear that his country’s experience was such as to suggest that nationalization of banks, insurance companies and mining houses could be less effective than basing all on a market economy. Coming from China, that message made more of an impression than any other and it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the market economy in South Africa today owes much to those debates.

Over the ensuing years, up to 15 African presidents gathered to participate in Forum meetings in Johannesburg, Harare and Cape Town. Leading businessmen from all over the world came to those meetings – all to gain a better understanding of southern Africa and its opportunities –Mandela participated in all of them and, today, President Jacob Zuma is honouring the Forum with his presence.

Powerful influence

As we look back over the past 25 years, what comes through strongly is the powerful influence the Forum has had on developments and thinking in and about southern Africa. Nelson Mandela’s words to Klaus Schwab in Davos in 1999, when he bade farewell, say it all:

“Were it not for the World Economic Forum we would not be where we are today.”

We all need to salute the vision, courage and prescience of the founder and leader of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, and thank him and his people for their continuing interest in affairs in our country.

The World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 takes place in Cape Town, South Africa from 3-5 June.

Author: Neal Chapman, Chairman, First National Bank (1997-2000)

Image: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 1992 – Frederik de Klerk, Nelson Mandela, Klaus Schwab. Copyright World Economic Forum

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