Bruce Whitfield with former US president Bill Clinton at the Discovery Leadership Summit. Former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, also addressed the audience in Sandton.
  • The Discovery Leadership Summit 2018 drew top global names. 
  • There was an overall optimistic tone from former world leaders who urged SA to give itself a chance of a turnaround.
  • South Africa may not ever be a China or an India - but it could be rich, one presenter said.

The 72-year old Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, might not have the swagger he once did at the peak of his political power, but his encyclopaedic knowledge of the globe and current events allows him to cut straight to the basics of seemingly insurmountable issues.

He had four words for South Africa.

“Don’t screw this up.”

Clear. Simple. Direct.

Clinton, speaking at Thursday’s Discovery Leadership Summit in Johannesburg was making the point that South Africa had pulled itself back from the brink of self destruction and was given another chance at redemption following the almost wasted decade of the Zuma administration - a period former Investec CEO Stephen Koseff described as “useless.”

While South Africa has recorded two quarters of contraction so far this year, putting us technically into a recession, the reality is that population growth in this country has outstripped GDP growth over the past decade. This means that everyone in the country, on average, is poorer in real terms today than at the start of the Zuma years.

Koseff’s remark was supported by data presented by Discovery CEO Adrian Gore showing the impact the lost decade has had on the lives of South Africans.

If South Africa’s growth had just mirrored global growth over the past decade, he said, our economy could have been 17% bigger than it is now. It would have been 38% bigger had we emulated the extraordinary growth in emerging markets.

We could also have had 2.5 million additional jobs which would have had a real impact on poverty levels in South Africa.

South Africa is emerging from a decade of poor decision-making - but delegates were optimistic that the tide had turned.

This time last year as the country prepared for a fractious ANC leadership conference, we moved agonisingly close to a point of no return as state capture gathered steam and state resources were plundered for the sole benefit of a well-placed elite.

On Thursday, president Cyril Ramaphosa ended the damaging commissioner-ship of Tom Moyane at SARS, sending yet another signal that those who have dismissed his “new dawn” as a failure might have to reconsider their position.

Whitfield with president Cyril Ramaphosa at the summit.

Back to Clinton, a big fan of South Africa. His term in office dovetailed with that of late  president Nelson Mandela.

The two enjoyed a solid rapport, something that appears to have carried over to Ramaphosa, who received a standing ovation on arrival and on the conclusion of his address from the booted-and-suited business audience, who were clearly concerned about the future of their investments.

Ramaphosa did what he could to allay their concerns.

He paid tribute to the role business can play to help turn around the country’s precarious economy. Asked what gave him the confidence to believe he could turn it around, he said he believed in the goodwill of the majority of South Africans and their desire to share in a more prosperous future.

The summit, held every two years, has built a solid reputation for drawing serious heavy hitters, some local, many global.

Among this year's participants was Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist who coined the BRICs acronym. South Africa won't ever play in the mega league of a China or India as an emerging market - simply because our population is too small and not sufficiently productive, he said. But, O'Neill also contended that there is no reason why, with decent economic policy, it cannot be a rich country.

It’s all about choices.

O'Neill hailed Ramaphosa's choice of Tito Mboweni as finance minister. The pair had dealings when Mboweni was governor of the Reserve Bank.

Most telling was a sense of optimism from Koseff, who still sits on the boards of an number of Investec companies, and Patrice Motsepe. The billionaire philanthropist is one of few business leaders who is directing investment into South Africa, not by some misguided patriotism, but due to the fact that he is sticking to what he knows.

His African Rainbow Capital has taken some 40 stakes in a wide range of businesses from the wireless provider rain to the Val de Vie polo estate.

Hillary Clinton, the woman who should have been the 45th president of the US, based on the popular vote (she won 2.9 million more votes than the incumbent Donald Trump), but lost due to the multiple vagaries of the US electoral college system, said Ramaphosa needs to change South Africa’s story.

This is something Ramaphosa seems at pains to do as he seeks to drum out of popular language phrases like “White Monopoly Capital” and “redistribution without compensation”.

Bill Clinton cautioned that more needs to be done to help the poor and marginalised.

Government should be seen to do good.

He cautioned against creating a sense of false hope. Don’t tell people they are going to get land if it is not going to happen.

“Don’t screw this up," said Clinton. 

Bruce Whitfield was MC at the Discovery Leadership Summit 2018, and is a multi-platform award winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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