Geneva — Of all the many leaders I have met in the course of my life, none made a deeper impression on me than Nelson Mandela.
His courage, compassion, humility and wisdom were without parallel on the world stage, and he himself was an enduring source of inspiration. And while he is rightly revered as a hero in the struggle for race freedom, he also deserves recognition as a champion of economic freedom who set his country and continent on the path to growth.
Nelson Mandela understood that social transformation and economic transformation go hand in hand. As he explained to World Economic Forum participants at Davos in 1999: "We should lay the scourge of racism to rest. This requires strong democratic institutions and a culture of compassion. None of this is possible without a strong economy."
In 1990, when he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment, South Africa's economy was not in a position of strength. The toxic taint of a racist regime had led to international sanctions, curbing trade and investment. Rigid foreign exchange controls, uncompetitive industries and the total marginalization of the black workforce all hampered the country's ability to enter a new and more equitable era. The continent as a whole was struggling to find its footing, and at the time, the average African was getting poorer.
Faced with a bitter history of injustice, Nelson Mandela's first instincts were understandably protectionist. In fact, when he attended Davos in 1992, it was with the intention of explaining to those present why nationalization was the right approach for South Africa. But based on what he learned at the meeting, he changed his mind.
Nelson Mandela once explained this conversion with his characteristic self-deprecation and humour. Referring to Davos business delegates, he said: "They had a dinner where they listened to me very politely, before explaining to me exactly what would happen if we carried out the plans we made in prison. I went to bed thinking while I had been out of the real world for 27 years, things had changed. Nobody told me I was stupid.
But I could see that they thought I was not very clever. I woke up the next day and realized nationalization would be the wrong policy for my country."
It was a hallmark of Nelson Mandela's leadership that being open to change made him appear not weaker, but even stronger. Instead of building barricades of nationalism, Nelson Mandela left Davos having reached out to the world for help in realizing his party's economic vision for Africa. Two years later, he became South Africa's first black president, leading a multiracial democracy, a symbol of hope for the continent. The political and economic transition that would ultimately place South Africa in the BRICS group of emerging powerhouses had begun.
Sanctions were lifted, Foreign Direct Investment flowed in, agricultural markets were deregulated and South African companies were revitalized. The proportion of black Africans, young people and women in the workforce increased in the post-apartheid years. As the economy gained momentum, real GDP grew by 68% between 1993 and 2008, according to the OECD, while GDP per capita increased during the same period by 36%. These dry statistics cloak a vivid truth: many people could, for the first time, turn on a tap, switch on a light and go to school.
When Nelson Mandela returned to Davos in 1999, he noted that 3 million people had gained access to clean drinking water in the first five years of democracy, while the proportion of households without access to electricity had shrunk from two-thirds to one-third. Complacency was never a part of Nelson Mandela's character though; he was always keenly aware of the formidable challenges in creating a dynamic and sustainable economy on the fractured bedrock of South Africa's past.
These challenges persist today, manifesting in severe social problems ranging from income inequality to crime and industrial unrest. Yet it is worth remembering just how far South Africa has come, from the dark days of apartheid to its position as the biggest and most competitive economy in a continent entering a much more hopeful era. Spurred by economic liberalization, Sub-Saharan Africa is now, according to the IMF, second only to developing Asia as the fastest growing region in the world.
This shift would be difficult to envisage without the inspiring leadership of a man who believed in openness over isolation, humour over hubris, and reconciliation over bitterness. I was honoured to count Nelson Mandela as a true friend of the World Economic Forum.