NEWS & ANALYSIS

Snowballs

Andrew Donaldson writes on SA's dwindling presence in Davos, and related matters

A FAMOUS GROUSE

SO, in this corner a childish brat, and in that corner Greta Thunberg. 

Thus the big headline-grabbing act of Davos 2020 as far as the world’s fish-wraps were concerned: a bully whose mental state is rapidly deteriorating railing away at a girl with Asperger’s, and she retaliating in kind.

It was, as The Times of London columnist David Aaronovitch described the clash between Donald Trump and the Swedish teenager, “the heavyweight political contest of the world”.

The battle, Aaronovitch continued, was physically embodied: “Pony-tail versus improbable quiff, pink hoodie versus expensive suit and stars-and-stripes pin, meaty frame versus vegan wisp. And on the sidelines the rest of us, invited by partisans to take one side or another on just about everything.” 

Tim Cohen, in Business Maverick, suggested it was the most bizarre of “non-confrontational confrontations”: a 17-year-old climate activist and an impeached American president “going toe-to-toe” without mentioning or recognising each other — and without overt acknowledgment of each others’ arguments.

Both columnists, like many commentators at the World Economic Forum, described the stand-off as one that was intractably polarised; there was, as Cohen put it, a “totally unbridgeable gap” between the two positions. 

I’m not altogether convinced that we should be greatly exercised by this, or that we should pay too much attention to Trump. Globally, the science is weighing heavily against the denialism and the world’s thinking, if I may, is drifting gradually Greta-wards as the issue of climate change is slowly but surely jemmied free of the constraints of that old left-right dichotomy. 

It is true that there remain powerful conservative elements in the US and elsewhere who still regard campaigns to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of some ideological, anti-capitalist plot. But, even so, their ranks are steadily diminishing. 

On Wednesday, the WEF released its annual Global Risks Report, and the big takeaway this year, according to Fortune magazine, was the emphasis placed on the risks to global economies posed by climate change — and the failure to address the issue.

Each year, the report offers a round-up of issues to “worry about now”. In the past, and as recently as last year, these have been a diverse grab-bag of assorted anxieties: fiscal crises, energy price shocks, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, political upheavals, and so on.

“But this year,” Fortune noted, “those disparate worst-case scenarios appeared to coalesce into one, overarching message of urgency: the most likely risk by every estimate is the one posed by failing to address climate change before it takes out the global economy—and us.”

Environmental risks have been mentioned in previous years but, according to WEF president Børge Brende, this is “the first time in the survey’s history that one category has occupied all five of the top spots”: extreme weather conditions, failure to adapt to climate change, major natural disasters, loss of biodiversity and human-made damage.

This a seismic lurch, a parting of tectonic plates, as far as a change of heart is concerned. The WEF now describes the failure of business leaders to flag the dangers of climate change in the organisation’s Regional Risks to Doing Business Report, released in October last year, as a “critical blind spot”.

I mention all this because it appears that South Africa’s presence at Davos is largely pointless. This year, we have been told, our delegation to Switzerland was not as “high-powered” as it was in previous years.

“Davos,” 702’s Bruce Whitfield told his listeners this week, “is a pretty depressing place, as a South African… We used to have a very dominant position. This year we’re barely here! South Africa is at risk of becoming irrelevant… We’re so far behind the curve in terms of the adult conversation leading the world right now… We’re in the kindergarten sandpit throwing sand in each other’s faces while all the other kids are doing their MBAs!”

Well, not so much sand as lumps of dodgy coal, actually. The country’s continued dependence on fossil fuel as it struggles to meet energy demands is woefully at odds with international developments. As for South African irrelevancy, and indeed, the continent’s, well, that has been growing hand over fist for decades now. 

The country’s big moment at Davos was in 1992, when Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk met for the first time on a foreign platform. This was their first moment together on an international stage, and both leaders spoke of their hopes for a peaceful transition to majority rule.

Mandela’s speech was particularly prescient. He sounded an early warning about climate change: “The planet [we] inhabit faces the awesome menace of destruction as a result of a human-made ecological catastrophe.” He also touched on mounting inequality. “It is a matter of common cause among us here,” he said, “that the continued impoverishment of millions of people throughout the world has become one of the great sources of global instability.” 

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Back then, according to the Financial Times, Mandela’s comments would have been more a matter of “intellectual debate than of pressing concern” as far as WEF delegates were concerned. Which is a polite way of saying they couldn’t give a stuff. 

This hasn’t stopped efforts to touch arch-capitalism on its conscience where Africa is concerned. Perhaps to the delight of African delegates, the outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel came out batting this week for a European Union-Africa free trade agreement. “We want to in particular listen to the Africans what is their agenda,” Merkel said. “I am very glad that we no longer do things for Africa but with Africa. We need to listen to their ideas and not always impose our ideas.”

Elsewhere, the charity Oxfam declared that the world’s 22 richest men own more wealth than all 325 million women in Africa combined. It’s a staggering assertion, and one that begged a question of whether or not Oxfam had included Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos, in its calculations. Having amassed a personal fortune of some $2-billion by “managing” her country’s oil reserves, “Dimples” dos Santos is Africa’s wealthiest woman — and a person of some interest in a multi-national corruption investigation. Unsurprisingly, she denies any and all wrongdoing and has plans to follow in her father’s footsteps and stand for high office.

But we digress. There was a brief resurgence of interest in southern African affairs at Davos in 2018, when Cyril Ramaphosa, then newly elected leader of the ruling party and waiting in the wings as the great saviour of South African capitalism, shared a moment in the limelight along with Joao Lourenço, who’d recently taken over as Angolan president after the 38 years in which his predecessor had run the country like a spaza shop, and Emmerson Mnangagwa who’d just become Zimbabwe’s president after Robert Mugabe’s ouster.

Mnangagwa was the particular flavour of the moment. Zimbabwe, he declared, was “open for business”, standing by for all that foreign investment and keen as mustard to repair relations with the international community after years of sanctions and debt default. 

Alas, he had to cancel his 2019 Davos trip. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis was worsening, there was a flawed and violent election, and a thuggish crackdown on dissent by security forces. The optics, as they say, were not good. 

As for Ramaphosa, well … this year he too was forced to stay at home, staring morosely out into the gloom, due to circumstances that remain sadly beyond his control.