Leader, icon, friend and vi­sion­ary

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - KLAUS SCHWAB The au­thor is founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum.

Of all the lead­ers I have met in the course of my life, none has made a deeper im­pres­sion on me than Nel­son Man­dela. His courage, com­pas­sion, hu­mil­ity and wis­dom were with­out par­al­lel on the world stage, and he was an en­dur­ing source of in­spi­ra­tion. While he is rightly revered as a hero in the strug­gle for racial free­dom, he also de­serves recog­ni­tion as a cham­pion of eco­nomic free­dom who set his coun­try and con­ti­nent on the path to growth.

Man­dela un­der­stood that so­cial trans­for­ma­tion and eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion go hand in hand. As he ex­plained to World Eco­nomic Fo­rum par­tic­i­pants at Davos in 1999: “We should lay the scourge of racism to rest. This re­quires strong demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions and a cul­ture of com­pas­sion. None of this is pos­si­ble with­out a strong econ­omy.”

In 1990, when he emerged from 27 years of im­pris­on­ment, South Africa’s econ­omy was not in a po­si­tion of strength. The toxic taint of a racist regime had led to in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions, curb­ing trade and in­vest­ment. Rigid for­eign ex­change con­trols, un­com­pet­i­tive in­dus­tries and the to­tal marginal­iza­tion of the black work­force ham­pered the coun­try’s abil­ity to en­ter a new and more eq­ui­table era. The con­ti­nent as a whole was strug­gling to find its foot­ing and, at the time, the av­er­age African was get­ting poorer.

Faced with a bit­ter his­tory of in­jus­tice, Man­dela’s first in­stincts were un­der­stand­ably pro­tec­tion­ist. In fact, when he at­tended Davos in 1992, it was with the in­ten­tion of ex­plain­ing to those present why na­tion­al­iza­tion was the right ap­proach for South Africa. But based on what he learned at the meet­ing, he changed his mind.

Man­dela once ex­plained this con­ver­sion with his char­ac­ter­is­tic self-dep­re­ca­tion and hu­mor. Re­fer­ring to Davos busi­ness del­e­gates, he said: “They had a din­ner where they lis­tened to me very po­litely, be­fore ex­plain­ing to me ex­actly what would hap­pen if we car­ried out the plans we made in prison. I went to bed think­ing, while I had been out of the real world for 27 years, things had changed. No­body told me (that) I was stupid. But I could see that they thought I was not very clever. I woke up the next day and re­al­ized na­tion­al­iza­tion would be the wrong pol­icy for my coun­try.”

It was a hall­mark of Man­dela’s lead­er­ship that be­ing open to change made him ap­pear not weaker, but even stronger. In­stead of build­ing bar­ri­cades of na­tion­al­ism, Man­dela left Davos hav­ing reached out to the world for help in re­al­iz­ing his party’s eco­nomic vi­sion for Africa. Two years later, he be­came South Africa’s first black pres­i­dent, lead­ing a mul­tira­cial democ­racy, a sym­bol of hope for the con­ti­nent. The po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic tran­si­tion that would ul­ti­mately place South Africa in the BRICS group of emerg­ing pow­er­houses had be­gun.

Sanc­tions were lifted, for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment flowed in, the agri­cul­tural mar­ket was dereg­u­lated and South African com­pa­nies were re­vi­tal­ized. The pro­por­tion of black Africans, young peo­ple and women in the work­force in­creased in the post-apartheid years. As the econ­omy gained mo­men­tum, real GDP grew by 68 per­cent be­tween 1993 and 2008, ac­cord­ing to the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, while per capita GDP in­creased by 36 per­cent in the same pe­riod. Th­ese dry sta­tis­tics cloak a vivid truth: many peo­ple could, for the first time, turn on a tap, switch on a light and go to school.

When Man­dela re­turned to Davos in 1999, he noted that 3 mil­lion peo­ple had gained ac­cess to clean drink­ing wa­ter in the first five years of democ­racy, while the pro­por­tion of house­holds with­out ac­cess to elec­tric­ity had shrunk from two-thirds to one-third. Com­pla­cency was never a part of Man­dela’s char­ac­ter, though. He was al­ways keenly aware of the for­mi­da­ble chal­lenges in cre­at­ing a dy­namic and sus­tain­able econ­omy on the frac­tured bedrock of South Africa’s past.

Th­ese chal­lenges per­sist to­day, man­i­fest­ing in se­vere so­cial prob­lems rang­ing from in­come in­equal­ity to crime and in­dus­trial un­rest. Yet it is worth re­mem­ber­ing just how far South Africa has come, from the dark days of apartheid to its po­si­tion as the big­gest and most com­pet­i­tive econ­omy in a con­ti­nent en­ter­ing a much more hope­ful era. Spurred by eco­nomic lib­er­al­iza­tion, Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa is now, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund, sec­ond only to de­vel­op­ing Asia as the fastest grow­ing re­gion in the world.

This shift would be dif­fi­cult to en­vis­age with­out the in­spir­ing lead­er­ship of a man who be­lieved in open­ness over iso­la­tion, hu­mor over hubris, and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion over bit­ter­ness. I was hon­ored to count Man­dela as a true friend of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum.


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