South African finance minister Tito Mboweni held a priceless piece of history in his hands but tossed it the bin in the snows of Switzerland. It would have been worth a fortune today.
The pile of paper in question contained a speech by the then president- in-waiting Nelson Mandela who was the star of the World Economic Forum in Davos back in 1991. Fresh from 27 years in prison, Mandela addressed the forum and earned a 10-minute standing ovation before he uttered a word.
Mandela was also trying to negotiate his way to power by carrying the wishes of the rank-and-file African National Conference members. On the cusp of power they wanted nationalisation of the banks and mines as laid down in the country’s sacred Freedom Charter penned by liberation activists in 1955.
Mandela has laboured over a hand written speech promising nationalisation as a cornerstone of a socialist economy. At the time, with globalisation on the march, it would have gone down like a lead balloon with foreign investors who were already edgy about the ANC, that had not long put down its weapons, taking over the then biggest economy in Africa.
Mboweni recalled that among the first people Mandela met with in Davos, as he worked on his nationalisation speech, were leaders of the communist parties in Vietnam and China.
“Both of them said to him we are leaders of communist parties we have economic liberalisation programmes on our agenda. They said leading a national liberation movement and we are leading communist movements how come you are more radical than us?”
But ANC advisors persuaded Mandela to throw the speech away and the young 31-year-old exiled activist, duly cast the pile of papers in the bin.
“He was persuaded that a very long speech on nationalisation might be appropriate for another forum but not Davos,” says Mboweni at the breakfast on the road to Davos held at a Rosebank hotel in Johannesburg Thursday.
“It was a big pile of paper. My biggest regret is that I threw it away because it is part of history and it would be worth a fortune now. The one we used was only about three pages.”
Those three pages changed history and ushered in a golden decade of growth and prosperity. Foreign investors, encouraged by swift free market reforms and easing of exchange controls, queued up to invest in the new South Africa when Mandela took power in 1994. GDP growth peaked at around 5% in 2005; fourteen years on the country’s battered economy, plagued by power cuts, is struggling to make one per cent.
“It’s no longer 1994!” exclaimed one business editor at the road to Davos breakfast when asked about the country’s current new investment prospects in Switzerland , “South Africa is just another small country in a big and more complicated world.”
Fair enough. There are those in business who feel that South Africa didn’t cash in enough on those gilded days of the Mandela feel good factor and is now paying the price in the current difficult world economic climate. Many of them are probably right.