A World Economic Forum Africa sign in Cape Town. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG
A World Economic Forum Africa sign in Cape Town. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG

From a distance, it’s relatively easy to take potshots at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa, held in Cape Town last week.

For a start, the entrance fee of $10,000 for individual executives — and much more for corporate partners — tends to define the financial status of the participants and fuel perceptions that it is an elitist gathering. And the format — seminar after workshop after panel discussion — lends itself to the accusation that it is yet another talk shop.

Some even argue that the real action this year took outside the conference venue, where protesters urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to do something about rampant gender violence — prompting the view that the value of WEF Africa was on the sidelines, or even outside the venue.

But, as a first-time co-chair of the Forum, I firmly believe the criticism is outweighed by the intensive big picture discussions that took place in Cape Town last week, which are likely to have a far-reaching impact on the global economy, and on Africa and SA in particular.

So, what did we talk about? One of the most inspiring conversations related to the momentum developing around the private sector’s role in Africa’s growth story, and its critical catalytic responsibility in maintaining peace and stability on the continent.

This comes at the time when the role of business is redefined globally, embracing a focus on generating long-term value for all stakeholders and addressing the challenges we face, which will result in shared prosperity and sustainability for both business and society.

This nascent paradigm shift comes against the backdrop of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is designed to support private sector development, because trade and investment are and should be private sector driven.

Governments offer the platform and regulatory framework, but government is technically not an investor nor a trader. What this means is that the private sector must step up its contribution to the implementation and attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals and African Agenda 2063.

Taking the lead

It is time for the private sector in Africa to take the lead on that journey, and there are few areas that I’d like to highlight:

  • We need to recognise that supporting a free-trade area is not an act of charity but rather a strategic move.
  • AfCFTA would be better enabled by an African leadership (from across society) that champions a Pan-African rather than a nationalist agenda.
  • We must encourage Africans to procure local goods and services.
  • We have to enable a thriving small- and medium-enterprise sector as the key driver of inclusive economic growth and employment.

There can be no doubt that we need to enable the ease of movement of African capital through the integration of our capital markets. We also have to focus on continental industrial strategies that create beneficiation hubs for certain minerals to create economies of scale — gold beneficiation, iron ore, diamonds, for example — with all the producers from different countries incentivised to deposit their primary products to these initiatives.

These steps should be accompanied by the promotion and protection of intra-Africa investment through an African Union-monitored and enforced regulatory regime, including competent arbitration.

Skills, skills, skill

“Skills” was the word on almost everyone’s lips throughout the gathering, particularly the view that we must show preference for African high-end skills and talent, including that from the diaspora, and enable free movement and accessibility.

This is particularly important if we are to leverage the Fourth Industrial Revolution to facilitate inclusive and sustainable growth. We will need a skills revolution underpinned by a purposeful partnership of government, academia, the private sector and civil society.

The alignment of skills development with market needs and the AU’s Agenda 2063 priorities will bring industry practitioners into the development of capacity, enabling training institutions to draw on both policy and practice to enrich training curricula.

We must urgently roll up our sleeves, though: sub-Saharan Africa has a global share of high-skilled employment of only 6% (in contrast to the global average of 24%) while 39% of the core skills required across occupations in Africa will be entirely different by 2020. For this we need a future-ready curriculum that speaks to the increasingly technology-driven economy and learners require proficiency in science, technology, engineering, maths (Stem) and digital literacy.

What stands in the way?

These ideals will remain ideals, however, until we take some hard decisions about our continent and our country. Firstly, Africa must defeat the scourge of xenophobia, racism, ethnic, gender and homophobic discrimination. Discrimination of any kind introduces allocative deficiencies in the labour market and distorts economies. We must be unflinching in acknowledging this challenge and addressing it responsibly.

Secondly, large-scale corruption is the elephant in the room in the ongoing conversation about Africa’s growth story, and there is an emerging consensus that to successfully attract the investment required for inclusive growth, governments and the private sector need to think outside the box in deploying effective remedies and deterrents against corruption.

Ultimately, as I said in my closing remarks at the forum: there is a yearning for more action and less talk — the airtime for Africa’s potential is exhausted. Millions of Africans would like that potential to be delivered as in yesterday.

We need collective will and determination to act and implement the continental frameworks. This must involve African political, business, civil society, trade unions and other leaders.

But the truth is, we will probably only really know the effects of 2019 WEF Africa in a few years from now, once the role-players have returned to their home countries and companies, interacted with other stakeholders, and decided whether or not to do something about the issues we discussed.

That’s the ultimate test of WEF Africa, or any other forum of this nature: you go, you listen, you talk, you listen some more, and you go home.

And then, if you are a responsible leader, you act.

• Sipho Pityana is chairman of AngloGold Ashanti. He was a co-chair of WEF Africa 2019.