The World Economic Forum really couldn’t come at a better time for Team SA. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, leading SA’s delegation, said on Thursday that the ANC and SA as a whole were entering a phase of renewal. Both SA and the ANC were "coming out of a period of uncertainty, a period of darkness, and getting into a new phase", he said at a pre-Davos meeting.
His job would be to convince wary investors that the tide has turned in SA. His comments were echoed by Business Leadership SA CEO Bonang Mohale, who said "as complex as the challenges we face are, with demonstrable ethical and inspirational leadership and collaboration we can send out a strong message that SA is open for business".
Compare these soothing words to what might have been: an ANC conference that had collapsed or been caught up in legal wrangling. The grand pitfalls, almost miraculously, have been avoided and that will allow the South African delegation to meet the world on the front foot.
Yet it will remain a sceptical audience, as Ramaphosa implicitly acknowledges. SA’s decline from a country of hope to a country on the brink has been startling and shameful, and that decline will not rub off easily. Even as no fewer than seven cabinet ministers in the delegation woo global leaders of politics and business, SA’s state-owned entities continue to wobble and urgent action will be required.
The nature of the meeting is likely, however, to coalesce around the danger of a deteriorating geopolitical landscape that is only just eclipsing the dangers associated with social polarisation
The timing is fortunate from another point of view too. The mood at Davos is likely to be upbeat, or at least more upbeat than in the recent past, notwithstanding the rather downbeat theme of the conference, Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.
The world is going through a period of unusually synchronised global economic growth. Perhaps partly for that reason, the 48th meeting of the event has attracted a record number of presidents and deputy presidents from around the world, about 60 in all.
Included in that group will be US President Donald Trump, whose presence will be something of an anomaly. Trump is perhaps the most fervently anti-globalisation and anti-free-trade US president in a generation, a stance that stands in stark contrast to the loose consensus of the Davos set, which is generally staunchly internationalist. Interestingly, the opening address will not be delivered by the notional "leader of the free world" but by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, symbolically suggesting the grander shift in geopolitics.
The WEF is often criticised for being a closed circle of like-minded plutocrats: it costs about $50,000 for senior business leaders to attend. It takes place in a sealed-off Alpine retreat guarded by thousands of soldiers and police. Yet the reality of the conference is very different: the consensus is loose if it exists at all, the span of the conference’s subject matter is much wider than often thought and the participants are drawn from a broad array of society. Even singer Elton John will be attending.
The nature of the meeting is likely, however, to coalesce around the danger of a deteriorating geopolitical landscape that is only just eclipsing the dangers associated with social polarisation — which has been the main conference topic of previous meetings. Under those two headings, a host of other dangers looms, including growing income disparity, cyber-threats, and environmental degradation.
In this grand scheme of global politics, SA’s problems might seem small potatoes, but in many ways, SA is a microcosm of these broader issues. From severe water shortages in Cape Town to social conflict around school attendance, societal stresses from fast population growth, environmental change and political dislocation are everywhere evident.
If the meeting is to have real value, it will demonstrate to SA’s leaders the need for real urgency in confronting powerful trends. This is not a time for procrastination. With any luck, that message will be etched into the minds of SA’s political and business elite.