Escapades at the World Economic Forum… becoming a WEF young global leader

Arthur Mutambara strategy consultant 
This is an extended excerpt from Arthur Mutambara’s upcoming book: In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: Volume 3:

AS explained in Volume 2 of this series of memoirs, on 11 January 2007, I am nominated and accorded the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Young Global Leader (YGL) status. WEF is an independent international organisation committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas. Founded by Professor Klaus Schwab, it is incorporated as a not-for-profit foundation in 1971, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

The YGL forum is a diverse multi-stakeholder community of the world’s most outstanding leaders who commit a portion of their time to jointly shaping a better future and thereby improving the state of the world. It was created in 2004 by Klaus Schwab, the WEF founder and executive chairperson, as an independent foundation working in close partnership with the WEF. I am a WEF Young Global Leader from 2007 to 2013, and I attend WEF events in Europe, China, India, the United States and Africa.

Of immense importance and particular significance is the Annual Meeting of WEF in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, at the end of January each year. At this meeting, global leaders from business, government, academia and civil society share insights and discuss global trends in interactive workshops and informal roundtables. Davos brings together some of the world’s top policy — and decision-makers in an extraordinary atmosphere.

With Bill Gates, Bill Clinton at Davos

As Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, I attend WEF events in Davos every January in the years 2009 to 2013. Private meetings include discussions with Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, US Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, President Barrack Obama’s adviser Valerie Jarrett, former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, Bill Gates and former US president Bill Clinton, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, and AfDB president Donald Kaberuka. Other interesting interactions involve artists Emma Thomson, Bono, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio.

It is the year 2010, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting is being held from January 27 to 31 in Davos, Switzerland. As WEF Young Global Leaders, we have the unique opportunity of being separately addressed by Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. In his address, Bill Gates speaks about the Microsoft story, but spends more time on his new passion — global health.

During the question and answer session, I ask him about his own story: “Bill, I understand you dropped out of Harvard in your second year of studying Physics. How did you manage the risks involved? If it were me in your situation, the entire village would stone me, saying: “Arthur you have an opportunity to go to Oxford University, but drop out. How dare you?”’ Bill laughs and says:

“I did not take that much of a risk. I spoke to my professors at Harvard, and they encouraged me. They said: ‘Pursue your dreams. Go and form your company and blossom. However, if you run into difficulties and things do not work out, come back to Harvard and we will help you continue with your studies and earn your degree.’ You see, it was not as risky as you think!’

I am totally but pleasantly astonished. This is how it should be. The education system must mitigate and minimise the risks that bright students take as they pursue their dreams and become entrepreneurs.

This is part of the genius of the US academic system, which is based on credits, which one can complete in their own time frame. I contrast this with the English system, such as we have in Zimbabwe, where you are withdrawn or discontinued from the academic programme if you drop out or fail. Only in rare cases does one get a supplementary examination or is allowed to repeat a class. The flexible US academic system puts a premium on entrepreneurship and job creation, whereas the English one is about creating workers. The questions by students within the British system are: “Professor, how do I get a first class? How do I graduate top of the class? How do I qualify for a Master’s or PhD programme?” In the US, the questions are: “Professor, how do I get a patent for my work? How do I commercialise my thesis or dissertation and form a company?”

In the US, education is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If the end can be achieved without a degree, pursuit of the qualification can be set aside. Great entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg are typical examples of this US attitude and disposition towards formal education.

With Bill Clinton, we are surprised at the way he is still sharp and well-versed with current public policy issues in the US and globally. He has got it all at his fingertips. Bill Clinton presents a detailed analysis of contemporary political debates in the US and deals with global challenges such as climate change, HIV/Aids, poverty and nuclear weapons. He is at his best. He also encourages us as young people to take up public service. He also emphasises the importance of effective communication, not just oratorical skills, but media strategy, story-telling and creative use of modern technology.

He suggests that he is not an outstanding orator but an effective communicator. During discussions, I ask him: “If you had gotten into politics a little older, would you have been a better president? Also, what are your major regrets? What would you do differently?”

He does not answer these questions well. I am quite surprised that the usually articulate Bill Clinton prevaricates and appears defensive. He seems cautious of anything that might force him to talk about the Monica Lewinsky saga. Anyway, I let the matter rest without further probing. I let it slide.

As fellow Rhodes Scholars, after the main meeting, he and I have a little chat about Oxford and life after that great institution. Later that evening Jackie (my wife) and I meet up again with Bill Clinton at one of the WEF social events. They have quite a chat as Jackie reminds him of how they had met at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts held at Hay-on-Wye in the United Kingdom in 2001. Of course, we have some beautiful pictures taken with the former US President. — the V11 forms (the evidence) in Zimbabwean lingua! As WEF Young Global Leaders meeting and discussing with Bill Gates and Bill Clinton are some of the highlights of our WEF Davos experience in January 2010.

GNU Principals at WEF

In addition to the annual WEF Davos meeting, there is also the WEF on Africa, which takes place over three days. Like Davos, it is renowned for its informal style, which aims to engender frank, open and detailed conversations among the most influential leaders — political, business, civil society and academic — with a stake in the African continent. As WEF Young Global Leaders, some of us have the unique opportunity of attending both the WEF Davos and Africa meetings.

In 2010, Tanzania hosts the WEF on Africa in Dar es Salaam from May 5 to 7. This is the 20th anniversary of the WEF on Africa. It is also the first time that the Forum’s Africa meeting is held in east Africa, away from its traditional African venue of Cape Town.

With South Africa hosting the World Cup in June 2010, it is decided to move WEF on Africa away from the hectic preparations for the World Cup to Dar es Salaam. The country’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, welcomes the news, saying: “It is heartening to see the positive impact that the World Economic Forum has on key issues of global concern. The theme of this year’s gathering is Rethinking Africa’s Growth Strategy.

The session on Zimbabwe is under the topic: The Future of Zimbabwe. It features president Robert Mugabe, prime minister Tsvangirai and myself. Also present are African Sun’s Shingai Munyeza, Old Mutual’s Kuseni Dlamini, TV host Julie Gichuru, and Runa Alam of Development Partners International. We discuss Zimbabwe’s future, the reforms being undertaken, how businesses and investors were adjusting their operational strategies to the political and economic developments. Sanctions, indigenisation, investment drive, and a shared vision were also discussed. Wait a minute, I have gone ahead of myself! The session on Zimbabwe is not part of the WEF agenda.

 The unscheduled panel that almost never happened

The historic panel discussion in Tanzania by the three Zimbabwe Government of National Unity (GNU) principals hosted by Schwab, is not on the WEF programme. This unique and unprecedented global platform is a product of last-minute efforts. It almost does not happen!

As a WEF Young Global Leader, at one of our sessions, Klaus approaches me and says, “Arthur, you are here at WEF. The prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, is also attending WEF. I understand president Robert Mugabe is in Dar es Salaam for a separate meeting of liberation movements. Why can’t we get the three of you — the GNU principals — to share a panel at WEF?”

The potential significance of such a shared forum strikes me. I say to Klaus: “Give me 30 minutes.”

I dash off to consult Tsvangirai, the prime minister. While he agrees to participate, he is sceptical about whether I can convince Mugabe. Off I rush to the president’s hotel room. His usual clumsy hangers-on and shameless bootlickers — including Emmerson Mnangagwa (President), George Charamba, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and Munyaradzi Kajese — are in his room when my message gets to him, requesting to meet him and discuss the potential WEF panel discussion.

To a man, they all viciously argue against the idea. They discourage Mugabe from participating. “It is a set-up for humiliation”, they pontificate. The ever cunning, astute and Machiavellian Mugabe asks all of them to leave the room. He decides to discuss the matter with me only. As I walk into his hotel room, the crafty political gladiator graciously welcomes me. With a wily smile, he gets down to business: “Professor Mutambara, what is the state of play? What is going on?”

I explain to him the value and significance of the event to the country — showcasing the GNU outside Zimbabwe by its three principals to a global audience of business, political and civil society leaders. “This is an unprecedented opportunity, Mr President.”

I effectively articulate and present an impenetrable case. He asks a few clarification questions and agrees to participate. “Let us do it, professor. I am in. Go and brief Klaus, accordingly. Good show (his favourite phrase after every meeting)!”

Mugabe has just taken my advice over the views of his unsophisticated, thoughtless and fawning cheerleaders — the bungling and inept lot! As I leave Mugabe’s hotel room and close the door behind me, I am besieged by curious and nervous bootlickers who are milling around outside Mugabe’s room. All the usual suspects are there. I confidently declare: “The President has agreed to participate. The Zimbabwe session is on!”

Mnangagwa and George Charamba almost collapse and faint. They are apoplectic with fear and despondency. Charamba will later write in the Zimbabwe Herald newspaper that “Arthur Mutambara was either foolhardy or a genius to propose such a successful platform to president Robert Mugabe!”

Umm really? What stark choices! Am I allowed to select between the two rationales, or it is for others to determine? Quite comical, indee

Well, the WEF platform on Zimbabwe is a roaring success. Again, I am going ahead of myself. Let us step back for a minute. With commitments from both the Prime Minister and the President, I rush back to Klaus.

I excitedly announce to him, “We are on! My two colleagues, the prime minister and the president have agreed.”

I expect him to be ecstatic, but no, Professor Klaus Schwab is suddenly subdued and circumspect.

He looks worried. It is that proverbial case of: ‘Be careful what you wish for, lest it comes true!’ He is now concerned that the radical, unpredictable and unrestrained Robert Mugabe might cause a disruptive scene during the WEF panel and damage his well-crafted and maintained global WEF brand. He does not want that at all. What can he do? He initiated the whole exercise. How can he back out now? I look at him with intense eyes and a stern face that speak more than words. ‘Of course, the show must go on, damn it.’ I do not have to utter that sentence. It is written all over my demeanour.

Professor Schwab decides to organise a pre-meeting with three GNU Principals in which he seeks to manage Robert Mugabe. Consequently, we – the four of us – get together in his onsite WEF office just before the panel discussion starts. Typical of Mugabe, he is quite prompt, right on time. Klaus is a complete nervous wreck. He begins by saying: ‘Gentlemen, as you know, the WEF is a non-political organisation. We want this panel discussion to be orderly and productive.

With his usual sharp presence of mind, Mugabe quickly interjects: ‘What do you mean non-political?’ Klaus freezes and starts to stammer sheepishly and incoherently. It is a miserable sight. In the end, all he does is explain the procedure of the panel discussion; that he will ask us questions starting with Robert Mugabe, next Morgan Tsvangirai and then me. He will then also open the discussion to the audience.

The panel discussion on ‘The Future of Zimbabwe’ proves to be the best event of the WEF on Africa held in Tanzania in 2010. We interact well and answer all the questions in a civil and collegial manner. Klaus effectively chairs the session, and there are no disruptions or outbursts. Everyone behaves statesmanly. The only slight hitch is that Mugabe gives a rather long and boring statement on Zimbabwean history. Well, it could be worse.

A number of African Presidents and Former Presidents are in the audience, including the host President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, SA President Jacob Zuma, and Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. Business and civil society leaders from all over the world are present. It is a great marketing opportunity for Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s overzealous hangers-on are also present to witness this fantastic event that they had unsuccessfully tried to stop. Shame on them.

Before the session, without our knowledge and in his nervousness, Klaus has taken the precautionary measure of limiting media coverage of the panel discussion on Zimbabwe. He restricts it to the WEF press resources only. As already explained, he is unsure whether it will not be a disastrous escapade that ruins his well-respected global brand – the WEF. When the event is massively successful, without the feared Mugabe disruptions, Klaus is immensely relieved. In fact, he is extremely pleased with the session. He then shares the full video recording of the event with all media houses – national, continental and global.

The WEF panel discussion on Zimbabwe, which almost never happened, is quite a sensation across the world.

The WEF escapades are over. It is time to head back to Harare from Dar es Salaam.

Mutambara is an independent technology and strategy consultant, based in South Africa. He  is also a visiting full professor at the University of Johannesburg. He is the former deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe. He is the author of a new trilogy: In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: An Autobiography of Thought Leadership. He is a chartered engineer and was a research scientist at Nasa. Mutambara holds a PhD in Robotics and Mechatronics and an MSc in Computer Engineering, both from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar.