Looking back on 25 years of the World Economic Forum on Africa

News by Adrienne Klasa
From World Economic Forum

In 1992, one year after the end of the apartheid era in South Africa, the two leaders that would broker the country’s future trajectory appeared together at a forum in Switzerland.

It was the first time Nelson Mandela, then the leader of the anti-apartheid African National Conference (ANC) movement, and President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa appeared outside the country, side by side. The forum was the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in an appearance that was the product of months of diplomacy on the part of the organization’s founder, Klaus Schwab.

Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk used the occasion to present a new vision for a unified South Africa to the world. Two years later, Mr Mandela would be South Africa’s first black president. It was the start of a new era, both for South Africa and for much of the region in which it would become an economic and political leader after years of sanctions and political isolation.

This year’s WEF Africa will return to South Africa from 3-5 June, with Cape Town as the backdrop for a meeting that will reflect on WEF’s 25 years in Africa, in parallel with the past 25 years of the region’s history. The theme – ‘Then and Now: Reimagining Africa’s Future’ – seems fitting given the venue.

“From a context point of view, Africa has changed dramatically since about 2000. Over the last 10 to 15 years, its prominence has grown globally as well, and that is also mirrored within the organisation,” Elsie Kanza, WEF’s director for Africa, tells This Is Africa.

“Within the organisation, the genesis of the World Economic Forum on Africa was the opening up of South Africa post-apartheid.”

South Africa’s economic transformation has been remarkable one, though many challenges remain. The country’s GDP rose from $111.1bn in 2002 to $350.6bn in 2013 – a drop of some $50bn from its peak in 2011, according to the World Bank.

Reflecting on the past quarter century of its history highlights the paradoxes of the region’s transformation. South Africa is one of the most advanced economies in Africa, yet it is also wrestles with rampant unemployment and recent xenophobic attacks against migrant workers perceived to be taking up space in an already overcrowded job market.

The country’s mining sector, which accounts will account for a projected 28.3 percent of national revenues in 2015 according to the IMF, has been struggling as low commodity prices and labour strikes cut into company profits. On 26 May, the Financial Times reported miners would cut a further 35,000 jobs in South Africa at a time when employment is already in short supply.

For many, the promising vision presented by post-apartheid South Africa’s leadership and today’s reality are not always congruent. Nevertheless, economic reforms undertaken at that time transformed South Africa’s economy and opened it up to investors from around the world. According to Ms Kanza, WEF played a key role in allowing the country to showcase its new direction.

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