There’s a revolution in Davos and SA should get in on it
The WEF's manifesto on the fourth industrial revolution could form a blueprint for SA’s own growth agenda
What a difference a year makes. This time in 2018, SA government and business leaders were preparing for an uncertain time at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.
Jacob Zuma had just been ousted as ANC president but was still clinging on as head of state. Cyril Ramaphosa, who had beaten him by a narrow margin at the ANC’s national conference just a month earlier, had not yet been handed the keys to the Union Buildings. The future was desperately uncertain.
As a result there were dark clouds of doubt over which way SA was going. We were pregnant with expectation, but there was also unease about what the newborn SA child was going to look like. The 2019 gathering of global political and business leaders, which starts on Tuesday, will no doubt be a more upbeat affair.
Ramaphosa is now firmly in office and there is a renewed sense of purpose around our economic trajectory, which means SA will be able to present a more coherent message at this important gathering of world leaders and potential investors. As the president told a pre-WEF briefing of SA delegates: “We are going to Davos 2019 on a firm footing.”
In 2018, many of SA’s business leaders kept some distance from the government delegation precisely because of our uncertainty about where the government was going. There was also clear discomfort with a number of the government leaders present, many of whom had been facilitators of state capture.
I will be attending the WEF for the first time as president of Business Unity SA (Busa). Our organisation is already heartened by the common purpose that is developing between the government and business – not to mention the fact that our government delegation will be dominated by people whose commitment is to our country rather than to personal wealth accumulation and egregious public conduct.
A lot has changed since the last WEF, and many of the changes are of fundamental importance to potential investors. Yes, we still lack an overall economic policy that addresses the challenges of inclusive and sustainable economic growth. But there is no doubt that we have greater policy certainty in key areas of the economy due to the mining charter and the integrated resource plan, as well as the progress being made on land reform. We have also seen several important institutional reforms, such as the strengthening of governance at state-owned enterprises and the progress made by the Zondo and Nugent commissions.
These changes have helped give credibility to the president’s “new dawn", and are correctly presented to the world as reasons to invest in post-Zuma SA. But there is an even greater opportunity at WEF, beyond the short-term marketing and investment benefits, and that is to firmly embrace the key theme of the 2019 forum: “Shaping a global architecture in the age of the fourth industrial revolution”.
4IR, as it is called, is a global “new dawn” of a special type. It is not just a quantum leap in the use of technology. It is a complete game changer in terms of how the world functions, how we live and work, and how we develop. It will affect every aspect of our lives, and is an irresistible tide that we must prepare for.
A draft manifesto on 4IR has been developed for discussion at the WEF. Used properly, this document could form a blueprint for SA’s own development agenda. The document is clear on the challenge: “We are experiencing a change to the very fabric of how individuals and society relate to one another and to the world at large. Economies, businesses, societies, and politics are not just changing – they are fundamentally transforming. Reforming our existing processes and institutions will not be enough. Rather, we need to redesign them to anticipate the forces of change and shape strategies that leverage the abundance of new opportunities, while avoiding the great risks inherent in such disruptive periods.”
The WEF document rightly puts consensus and co-ordination at the heart of 4IR: “In a world which has become more complex, multipolar and multiconceptual, the ability to manage global collaboration may be increasingly based on co-ordination and less on co-operation,” it states. “Co-ordination implies a means of achieving the same objectives while providing freedom for different national views, concepts and value systems. The Paris climate agreement and the UN sustainable development goals provide a good example of such a co-ordinated approach, particularly in a world where cohabitation is less based on shared values and more on shared interests.”
SA has already put some measures in place to ensure we are better prepared for 4IR, and as business we welcome this. These include the establishment of the presidential commission on the fourth industrial revolution which is under way, and clear indications from new communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams that strategies around 4IR should form a central pillar of the government’s development agenda.
However, a lot more needs to be done, particularly in ensuring synergy between government, business, labour and civil society, and in urgently updating the national development plan to align our development plans with 4IR.
For that reason, the 2019 WEF should be prioritised as a learning exercise for South Africans, in addition to the usual marketing and networking exercise. It is a gathering that brings together the world’s pre-eminent minds grappling with these same challenges, and many who have found innovative ways of harnessing the disruptive power of technology for the good of society.
If handled properly, SA’s approach to 4IR will enable our country to be at the forefront of 4IR and catalyse the good intentions that lie behind Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”. In the process, we have the opportunity to not only make our country a more attractive investment destination, but to begin to shape a new, fairer and more prosperous SA society for the millions who have been left behind by the first, second and third industrial revolutions.
As a country, we urgently need to address how we adapt our policies and accelerate our development trajectory to ensure we catch up with developed economies – and, where possible, get ahead. But as the WEF draft manifesto clearly points out, we can only succeed if we involve ourselves in multistakeholder-based dialogues on 4IR, with government, business, labour and civil society working together in collaborative and agile ways to shape new solutions. As South Africans, we have solid experience in developing social compacts for the greater good. The national minimum wage and the amendments to the Labour Relations Act are just two recent examples of this.
To maintain this momentum, Busa will convene a business economic indaba later in January to facilitate a dialogue for a transformed and inclusive economy. The indaba will set the tone for how business can continue to play its part in ensuring SA stays on the correct economic course and addresses the country’s low growth towards an innovative, prosperous and sustainable future.
If we come back from WEF with a common understanding of the opportunities presented by 4IR, it will have been a worthwhile trip. If one outcome of that gathering is that 4IR forms the core of our development strategy, and we move quickly to involve all South Africans in the conversation about their future, we will be able to make the great leap forward that 4IR presents and demands.
Then we will truly be able to speak about a new dawn for SA, where the sunshine of progress touches us all.
• Pityana is president of Business Unity SA.