Do you Davos? Top players jet in as SA pares its delegation

19 January 2020 - 00:00 By HILARY JOFFE

US President Donald Trump will be there. So will 17-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg. And the world's youngest prime minister, Finland's Sanna Marin, 34.But President Cyril Ramaphosa will not be attending the World Economic Forum (WEF), which opens at Davos tomorrow evening - nor, it seems, the inaugural UK-Africa summit in London tomorrow.He has instead dispatched a delegation led by finance minister Tito Mboweni, who will be joined by just two other cabinet ministers - international co-operation & development's Naledi Pandor and trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel - making this the smallest South African government presence at Davos in years. The rationale, say Treasury officials, is that SA simply cannot afford to send large delegations given the state of its economy. This year, certainly, it's clearly about the president having more urgent and important things to deal with at home, rather than a question of cost.Not that Davos is cheap. Public figures don't pay the WEF's steep membership fees, nor do civil society activists such as Thunberg, or the academics, philanthropists and young entrepreneurs invited by WEF president Klaus Schwab. But there's still the eye-watering cost of accommodation in the small ski resort town of Davos, which for public figures typically includes entourages and the cost of securing and transporting them all.The WEF tends to take over the entire town, with the official programme and the sideline events occupying not only the Convention Centre but also most of the hotels. The big multinational corporations that are the real paying customers take over local offices, shops and even bank branches to showcase their presence and host panels during the four-day event.This year marks the 50th anniversary of Schwab's founding of the WEF. The 2020 iteration of Davos will host about 3,000 people from 117 countries, including about 1,700 business leaders and 300 public figures - of whom 57 are heads of state or government. There are more than 350 sessions on the official programme, of which 120 will be webcast. That's not counting the huge number of sideline events - from breakfast briefings and panel discussions to late-night "nightcap" networking parties. Corporations, consultancies and countries all have their own events on the sidelines, as do NGOs, universities and global media houses. "It's very full. It's very busy. There's a lot of buzz," says Sebastian Buckup, the WEF's programme director for Davos.Along with the South African government threesome, the "Team SA" group will include Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago and CEOs or chairs of public sector entities such as Transnet, the Industrial Development Corporation and the Development Bank of Southern Africa, as well as about 20 business leaders, among them MTN's Rob Shuter, Naspers's Bob van Dijk, Sasol's Fleetwood Grobler, Nedbank's Mike Brown and Standard Bank's Sim Tshabalala. Business Unity SA president Sipho Pityana will be in Davos, as will Business Leadership SA president Busisiwe Mavuso, and two of Ramaphosa's investment envoys - Jacko Maree and Mcebisi Jonas - in their capacities as chairs of Liberty and MTN respectively.Davos has a special place in SA's economic history because it was at the WEF in 1992 that Nelson Mandela made one of his first appearances in a global business forum, using the opportunity to make it clear that nationalisation would not be on the ANC's list of policy priorities in government. And it was on a Davos pavement, in the crisis that followed "Nenegate", that business leaders such as Nedbank's Brown and then finance minister Pravin Gordhan came up with what became the CEO Initiative, as business started to play a more assertive role in SA.The WEF - in Davos and at WEF Africa, which is held most years in Cape Town or other African cities - has always been a platform on which business and the government can meet. That's perhaps become less important in the more "open door" years of the Ramaphosa administration. But like other countries, SA still uses Davos as a platform to market itself and tell its story to investors and potential investors and financiers. Davos's most crucial attraction is the convening power the forum still has, 50 years on. The government and business people emphasise that the most valuable aspect of Davos is the "bilaterals". Indeed, in many cases people's programmes are so full of bilateral discussions that they hardly attend any of the official programme. In three days, as they say, one can meet people who it otherwise might take three years to get in to see.Business leaders meet their global counterparts, and for the government, it's a chance to meet leaders of multinational firms who may or may not have investments in SA. Says Vuyelwa Vumendlini, deputy director-general for international and regional economic policy at Treasury: "Davos provides a central congregation of global corporations, thought leaders and civil society in a single meeting, thereby offering a unique and highly valuable platform in this regard."On its 50th anniversary, the WEF has recommitted to the "stakeholder capitalism" that was one of its founding principles: "We are looking at what is the role of the corporation in the context of the acute challenges the world is facing," says Buckup. Climate change features high up in that context. The 750 members of its network who the WEF surveys for its annual Global Risks Report put environmentally related risks as the top five of their most likely risk factors over the next decade. A decade ago the global risks list was dominated by threats to the global economy and financial system. Now, respondents are worried about extreme weather events and environmental disasters as well as biodiversity loss. On their list of shorter-term risks are economic confrontations and domestic political polarisation, as well as cyberattacks and heat waves.

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