President Jacob Zuma and Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE/GCIS
President Jacob Zuma and Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE/GCIS

WE WENT to Davos to see the wonderful wizards of wealth: a guild of the rich and powerful who pledge to increase justice and end poverty, but who find it perfectly on form that the world’s 62 richest billionaires — many of whom were represented at Davos — have as much wealth as 3.6-billion people today.

This is according to Oxfam’s pre-Davos report, which compared this to 2010 when 388 of the world’s richest owned as much as the 3.6-billion. The report pointed out that the wealth of the world’s poorest 50% dropped 41% between 2010 — and last year — when the wealth of the world’s richest increased $500bn to $1.76-trillion.

These figures, by all measures of justice and a better quality of life for all, are definitely heading the wrong way. Any reasonable person, if asked whether it is fair that 1% of people in the world should own more wealth than the other 99% combined, would reply "Hell no!" straight away.

Hence the Davos theme for this year, "How to master the fourth industrial revolution", should rather have been "Masters of the fourth industrial revolution" — where the rich work out how to get even richer and offer some spare change to countries such as SA to keep us feeling included.

Feeling included is a powerful emotion, as we witnessed from our Davos dignitaries, who returned upbeat and sharing the good news that Davos likes us. The likelihood that they would return saying "Davos doesn’t like us" is a house wins bet because this would not serve the Davos inner circle.

SA is, after all, still the economic powerhouse of Africa. Our rival for first place, Nigeria, is facing serious challenges due to its reliance on oil. Ours is a far more economically diverse country, with a strong stock market, banking, and automotive sector — and still the best value-for-money tourist destination in the world.

So yes, we were bound to get the Davos nod, but let’s be honest: it is a finger lick of the cake mix to make sure we’re on side and not making too much noise.

Whether we ever get to taste the cake is academic conjecture. Instead of hoping for small change, what we should be doing is focusing less on Davos or what part we’ll get to play in the fourth industrial revolution, and more on the escalating crisis in education, poverty and inequality at home.

Clearly, what we are doing is not working. The government, business sector, trade unions and citizens can’t even have a conversation about how to turn around our failings.

As rock-star French economist Thomas Piketty says: "Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact."

We are not being intellectually honest around the core issues we need to tackle to meet our goals, starting with education. We are ranked 140th out of 140 countries for maths and science in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2015-16. Côte d’Ivoire is ranked 17 — the highest in Africa, and higher than Canada and Australia.

We have to start having face-to-face conversations about what we need to do about this as a society, which includes acknowledging the legacy issues that most of our citizens have to deal with, and which requires urgently prioritising quality education from early childhood across the age spectrum through to higher education and technical and vocational training.

If we do not do this, it is meaningless to tell all the children without teachers, classrooms or a decent education that technology and the digital revolution will one day bring the best teachers into their classrooms.

We have to set measurable goals and targets for substantial improvements in our education system. We have to leave no stone unturned in this pursuit because this is the foundation of our social progress. Without this, while the world is exploring the uncharted territory of the fourth industrial revolution and the anticipated advantages of robots and artificial intelligence, it will pass us by, while the gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots feeds increasing instability and violence.

We also have to realise that, whatever the fourth industrial revolution might achieve, we remain part of the natural environment. In this terrible drought, the fourth industrial revolution means nothing to our farmers who cannot get access to water for their livestock and crops.

We are extremely fortunate that there is still a great deal of goodwill between so many citizens, as shown by those who helped provide water to communities without.

Surely, we have to change the discourse this year, with the policy makers leading the hard, honest conversations? Let’s start with robust debate in Parliament, by listening to the state of the nation address and showing citizens how Parliament should function.

A huge responsibility resides on the shoulders of the minister of finance. I hope that the budget presented on February 24 puts the humaneness project of SA on track. Most importantly, whatever money is made available, should go where it is intended and our Chapter 9 institutions should be properly resourced to safeguard our interests. Their work can no longer be compromised.

If we do not do this, then when the fourth industrial revolution becomes a reality, we will be watching from the sidelines and scrabbling in the dust for the small change thrown our way.

•   Skae is president of the South African Business Schools Association and the director of Rhodes Business School. He writes in his individual capacity