FirstRand COO Mary Vilakazi on a question many ask: Is the World Economic Forum still relevant?

This informal discussion between the chief operating officer of Africa’s most valuable financial services group and the founder of BizNews addresses a question that has taken on a surprisingly controversial tone nowadays. For most of its 52-year history, the WEF was universally regarded as a high-powered Forum for the exchange of ideas. In essence, through the spreading of knowledge, a force for good. But with the explosion of social media and many agenda-driven participants, the WEF is now often portrayed as a shadowy Illuminati-type alternative governing super-structure. Indeed some believe it to be an elitist grouping that wants to decide how humanity will live. Context is provided here as Mary Vilakazi shares her experience of WEF2023 with Alec Hogg.

Mary Vilakazi on whether the World Economic Forum in Davos is even worth having anymore

In the end, when the world is moving further and further apart on the themes of deglobalisation and geopolitical tensions, the outcome of all is countries returning to try and do their own thing. So, this is probably a time when it’s worthwhile to have global forums and platforms that bring different people together. Some tangible things get done at Davos; people come here to conclude some agreements, and we build new relationships. You listen; there’s a lot of listening, which is invaluable. 

So I would have probably hesitated and thought a bit hard about whether you’d need to pay so much money to be here. But the opportunity to have people coming from civil society, business, government, central banks, and young people because that’s also what the World Economic Forum does. These young global leaders and shapers do some really interesting work. And it’s valuable to have a platform where people can interact in a forum. 

On what was learned from Davos

What was interesting, a theme overall for Davos is that when I looked at the agenda, it was very noticeable that Africa’s participation was much less than it used to be in the past. That’s already a big risk because the most topical items, these items that are featured, the most were about climate change and nature. 

So, it’s a risk if Africa’s not at the table where climate change and solutions to climate change and climate adaptation strategies are discussed because we know that also goes with funding. So that’s one that African leaders need to take serious note of. Of course, there are many other forums, not just the World Economic Forum, but this is a proxy of the discussions that take place. So that’s a concern.

On the mood and her hopes for SA

I think the mood has been a bit depressed because we’ve got no electricity. And, you know, as South Africans, because we are capable of more, we are very hard on ourselves and need to be. But coming here, the sentiment towards South Africa has shifted. You know, the last time I was in Davos was 2018, and then every second person you engaged focused their questions on corruption. I think our central bank has also done very well in managing inflation. A lot of discussions are still around how we are generally well set up, or at least well-positioned, to ride through the global recession and emerge on the other side a lot stronger, provided we can tackle the electricity problem urgently and the ports too. 

But apart from those, it’s been good to be part of discussions with people, looking forward and looking through the politics and wondering what else South Africa could do. You know, how is South Africa going to benefit from some of the supply chain changes? How are we going to position ourselves from a trade point of view? So yeah, that’s been quite uplifting. You know, amid the discussions on Ukraine and Russia and what’s happening in Europe, there are opportunities for South Africa if we are well organised and take the opportunities that come about from these geopolitical fallouts because they are opportunities for us. So it’s been good to see investors looking at that and thinking about where they could come in and play.

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