OPINION: Four big lessons from Davos
Fresh from four days in the rarefied Alpine air of Switzerland, Team SA is home.
What did it achieve? If anything: a monumental reality check.
South Africa has always found reason to shine at Davos. It was the beacon of hope and possibility through the 1990s and still traded on 'Rainbow Nation' status through the noughties and put on a magnificent show ahead of its hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Everyone likes a winner, especially when they actually wonder how long the magic formula you have will last. That magic, however, at Davos 2016 finally seems to have worn off.
The world has its own problems. It's a time when countries hunker down in their own parochial silos and sort themselves out. They have no time for distractions.
If you are China, the world's second biggest economy and still growing (the IMF estimates at some 6% this year), then people care about you very much. If you are Russia and the world is a little bit frightened about the impact that you can have on their own sovereignty, then you have an audience which you can soothe and reassure. If you are showing promise of growth and opportunity, the world is terribly interested in you. Take Iran, with billions of barrels of oil under its desert sands and a promise of 8% growth in a post-sanctions era, investors are keen to listen to the story. With China slowing, investors are looking for the next big thing, so they are looking at India which is targeting 9% growth. Or if you are in a bit of a mess, but you promise to do better and your telegenic new president wows the gathering, like Argentina did this year, then you will have an audience.
You won't draw much of a crowd if you don't show potential, and the crowd you do draw is one looking for hope, rather than stewing in despair as the economy slides closer and closer to ratings Armageddon.
So what did I learn in the mountains of Switzerland?
No-one owes us anything
I suspect as a country we have become complacent. We have started to expect less of ourselves. We have stopped believing that we are a miracle nation with a myriad of opportunities open to us. That sort of attitude is contagious. Government officials in Davos took offence at my observation that the spark characterising previous gatherings appeared to have fizzled out. But they didn't deny it. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to start believing in ourselves again and reflect that to a world that has other distractions.
Do you remember the day your best friend kissed the girl/boy (delete where appropriate) you liked? You didn't have a signed agreement or anything, but you thought you understood each other. The fact that they went behind your back and did it was a betrayal and while you were still civil to each other and you might still have hung out together, it was just different after that. President Jacob Zuma's firing of Nhlalha Nene (sorry to keep bringing this up, but it's relevant) was a breach of trust. Someone sworn to defend the Constitution and act in your best interests broke that ultimate trust. Markets should have told him all he needed to know about the decision, but a growing body of evidence suggests he was forced to change the appointment of Des van Rooyen only under significant duress.
Davos could have been worse
I gave my colleague Mike Wills (who kindly stood in for me on_ The Money Show _while I was away) nightmares by simply proposing: "Imagine what it would have been like had Des van Rooyen been at Davos this year, rather than Pravin Gordhan." I wonder how many business executives who did attend the gathering would have had the guts to pull out of their participation. South Africa, rather than being dismissed as a bit of an underperformer, would have been laughed out of town.
It can be better
Sometimes it feels like you have to be crazy to be an optimistic South African. But for those of us who are (optimistic that is, rather than crazy), we can find evidence of common sense prevailing.
Pravin Gordhan is a consummate politician in the best sense of the word. He is engaging, he doesn't deny the obvious, but he provides a sense of calm leadership so necessary in a time of crisis and uncertainty. Delegates arrived in Davos somewhat apprehensive of the reception they would get and Gordhan was everywhere talking up the prospects for the country, not once being unrealistic about the problems, but choosing to look at the glass half-full. He assured private sector participants at Davos that he would hold a follow-up meeting with them in Pretoria to assess the real prospect of better public/private partnerships. The CEOs I spoke to were encouraged and determined to make that meeting count for the good.
It was after Maggie Thatcher met Mikael Gorbachev that she famously remarked that he was a man with whom she could do business. They came from fundamentally different ideological backgrounds, but both also knew that they were at a turning point in history when making the right choices would be good for their respective countries.
Leaving Davos 2016 for all of its quirks and disappointments, it may just provide the catalyst South Africa needs to do business.
Bruce Whitfield is the host of The Money Show on 702 and Cape Talk. Follow him on Twitter: @brucebusiness