In previous years, many of SA’s business and political leaders would be out of the country about now. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa skipped it in 2020, but finance minister Tito Mboweni and Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago were there, as were the leaders of SA’s most recognisable companies.

Ramaphosa is back for the latest version of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting, dubbed The Davos Agenda 2021. But he won’t be giving his address on Tuesday from the Swiss resort town, but virtually from somewhere in SA. It’s just another sign of the disruption brought about by the global spread of the coronavirus since the elites last gathered.

“Davos Man” — a phrase that has come to define the rich and influential people who have been meeting since 1971 — has in recent years come up for some mockery for allegedly being out of touch, with predictions that are often way off the mark. There’s no doubt that as they departed on private jets or caught flights in Zurich or Geneva late in January 2020, none of them had any idea what the world would look like 12 months later.

Neither would have the residents and businesses in the town, who have had a love-hate relationship with the jamboree. While in previous years they might have complained about traffic jams and security barricades that restrict movement, now they are likely to be thinking about the loss of the estimated €60m (R1.1bn) the meeting would have generated for the local economy.

From U2 frontman Bono’s jibe about “fat cats in the snow” to newspaper headlines across the world, the meeting has attracted criticism for being nothing more than a talk shop. In the middle of the worst global health and economic crisis in about a century, it will never have a better chance to show its relevance.

The keynote opening address was delivered by Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, and he used it to talk up international co-operation on issues from trade to the health crisis and environment.

In the preceding four years, Donald Trump’s “America First” policy and trade wars meant the world was presented with the communist superpower making the case for open markets and global co-operation, while the US, an architect and guarantor of the post-World War 2 order, was embracing isolationism. President Joe Biden has a lot to catch up on.

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and António Guterres, the secretary-general of the UN, will be among speakers this week, showing that the meeting hasn’t lost its pulling power, making it a powerful platform for Ramaphosa to push SA and Africa’s agenda.

The undisputed global crisis of the moment is Covid-19 and the uneven distribution of vaccines. World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week talked of a risk of moral failure as rich countries monopolise access to vaccines. That will do little to advance the case for international co-operation.

The instinct for countries to look after their own is natural and no voter is going to punish a government for looking after its own people. Our government was unique in its approach that left the country depending on pooled global resources. As citizens, we have made our displeasure clear. 

It’s a more productive approach to make a positive argument for co-operation, as opposed to a Trumpist zero-sum competitive game. A study released as the WEF conferences started did just that. It showed that failure to distribute vaccines to the poorest countries would see the richest shouldering half of the predicted $9-trillion loss. In a globalised and interconnected world, border controls can only get you so far. International supply chains mean prolonged disruptions and lockdowns in one place will cause economic harm elsewhere.

The pandemic presents a chance for the mighty and powerful  “Davos man” (and increasingly woman) to state the case for relevance. Delivering on the vaccine promise will go a long way.

As Erik Nielsen, group chief economist at Italian banking giant Unicredit, was reported as saying by Bloomberg: “So long as the pandemic terrorises part of the world, normality will not be restored anywhere.”


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