Picture: AFP
Picture: AFP

At a time both Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma personify controversies over "state capture", crony capitalism, personal corruption, populist rhetoric and self-serving economic strategies, will big business calm down the politicians — or just egg them on?

The Swiss-based World Economic Forum (WEF) meets not only in Davos each January but also gathers a few thousand elites in each of the main regions annually. At the WEF-Davos in 1992, Nelson Mandela was persuaded by both East Asian and Western leaders to drop the Freedom Charter and impose pro-corporate policies.

This year’s WEF-Africa delegates include tyrants such as King Mswati of Swaziland, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Zambia’s Edgar Lungu, as well as Zuma and a dozen Cabinet ministers. The co-chair is Siyabonga Gama, whose employer Transnet found him guilty of corruption after it commissioned a 200-page audit in 2010.

Other corruption-riddled state firms, Telkom and Eskom, are also key players at the WEF-Africa, along with the Japanese company Hitachi, which in 2015 paid a R250m fine to the US government. It confessed illegal collusion with the ruling party’s Chancellor House investment subsidiary when constructing (defective) boilers at Eskom’s R200bn Medupi power plant.

WEF-Africa partner corporations include banksters at Barclays, Citi (which to its credit last week paid the first fine — R70m — for gaming the rand), Credit Suisse, HSBC, Investec, Morgan Stanley, Standard Bank, and Standard Chartered Bank.

Partners in the business services, media and hi-tech fields also boast prodigious records of fraud: Accenture, Baker & McKenzie, Boston Consulting, Cisco, Ericsson, Ernst & Young, Google, Microsoft, McKinsey, MTN, Naspers, PwC and Toshiba. Other WEF-Africa sponsors that have bribed politicians across the world include Dow Chemical, Honeywell, Mitsubishi, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, and Royal Philips.

Venal relationships between brutal state rulers and the corporate elites they serve don’t deserve celebration at the WEF-Africa. Fissures need to be opened up further, for example, in the debate about how best to apply sanctions against Trump and Zuma.

Would WEF-Africans dare to follow the thousands of people who marched against Trump’s climate policies in Washington, DC, to help save the most climate-vulnerable planet?

As for Zuma, not only was he awarded "junk" credit rating status after firing his finance minister and deputy finance minister in March, at least one corporate boss, AngloGold chairperson Sipho Pityana, leads a Save SA movement aiming to topple him.

And Magda Wierzycka of Sygnia suggested to peers via Daily Maverick that "business can call on the international investment community to stop propping up the South African government until corruption has been rooted out and proper governance has been restored. This is as simple as making some phone calls to large international asset managers."

WEF-Africa organisers obviously disagree, for their website instead tells Zuma sweet little white lies: "The host country — the only African G-20 [Group of 20] economy — is championing reforms to eradicate extreme poverty and promote shared growth nationally, regionally and globally. The host city, Durban, which has the busiest industrial port in sub-Saharan Africa, offers insights on how trade in regionally manufactured goods can strengthen economic resilience and create jobs."

Reality check: since WEF-friendly policies were adopted here in the mid-1990s, official unemployment soared from 16% to 27% and poverty rose from 45% to 63%, along with de-industrialisation and ecological destruction. As for "shared growth", The Guardian recently revealed that SA is unequivocally the world’s most unequal country. As for Durban’s reliance on the port for trade, sorry: container traffic shrunk from 81.2-million tonnes in 2014 to 79.8-million in 2015 to 76.8-million tonnes in 2016.

The most dangerous of the world elites may well be Rex Tillerson, a frequent WEF-Davos attendee who ran ExxonMobil before Trump made him the US secretary of state in January. He is, according to the Rand Corporation’s elite analyst James Dobbins, "the personification of the Davos Man: powerful, worldly and well connected".

Under Tillerson’s direction, ExxonMobil went into exploration overdrive from Alaska to Siberia, and in 2014 began seeking oil and gas 3.5km deep directly offshore Durban, in spite of repeated objections by the South Durban Community and Environmental Alliance. The site is in the middle of the Agulhas Current, the world’s second most turbulent, near a priceless coastline.

But ExxonMobil has no ethics: in 1982, its scientists discovered that climate change would cause "some catastrophic events". Tillerson and other Exxon bosses not only covered that up, but instead funded climate-denialist propaganda for the next three decades.

In contrast, the People’s Economic Forum (PEF) of local social, environmental, youth, student and labour movements has met daily at the Durban University of Technology since April 27. Its march on Wednesday morning against the WEF-Africa includes a protest stop next to City Hall: the US consulate. Durban offered solidarity marches with 4-million women protesting against Trump’s misogyny on January 21 and with US scientists on March 22.

PEF activists will continue opposing WEF predators’ attacks on African societies and ecology: fracking in the Karoo (by Shell) and Drakensburg (by Rhino from Texas), the still-desired more than R1-trillion nuclear reactors of Rosatom (now already benefiting the Gupta brothers and Durban’s Vivian Reddy patronage networks), and the R250bn plans for a new Dig Out Port plus container-trucking depot, mega-refinery and doubling of the main oil pipeline, in addition to ongoing port expansion.

As Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett conceded at the 2017 WEF, "Davos Man has no clothes ... the annual celebration of global capitalism once represented the inevitable arc of human progress. No longer."

And in Durban too, as capitalism continues to fail the South African majority, the International Convention Centre’s (ICC’s) WEF bubble runs the risk of bursting, in part as a result of excessive hot air rising this week from both the Zupta and "white monopoly capital" camps within.

Bond is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand

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