Building an International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation

Mandela in Davos

While he would return to Davos in 1997 and 1999, Mandela acknowledged that his first visit had changed his perception of the world.


At the Annual Meeting, Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid leader and head of the African National Congress (ANC), who had been released from prison two years earlier, made a joint appearance – the first outside South Africa – with President F. W. de Klerk and Chief Minister of KwaZulu, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The meeting at a critical time of the three key players in South Africa’s transformation process showed that, despite differences, they shared a commitment to move the country forward towards democracy. To make this joint appearance happen, Klaus Schwab had travelled to South Africa several times to set with each leader the conditions for their participation in a Davos session. Mandela laid out his vision of a multi-party democracy. When he exceeded substantially the time that had been allocated, Schwab intervened. Mandela never forgot this interruption, but he and Schwab developed a very friendly relationship, meeting regularly. Mandela and de Klerk would together win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and Mandela would become South Africa’s first democratically elected president the following year, with de Klerk and eventual successor Thabo Mbeki as his deputies.

The ANC had stood for the nationalization of banks, mines and certain strategic industries, but during his discussions with other leaders at Davos, Mandela reconsidered. “They changed my views altogether,” he recounted to journalist Anthony Sampson, who wrote Mandela: The Authorized Biography. “I came home to say: ‘Chaps, we have to choose. We either keep nationalization and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.’”

In a letter to the Sunday Independent newspaper in South Africa in 2012, Tito Mboweni, who served as governor of the South African Reserve Bank from 1999 to 2009, recalled the Davos conversion. On arriving, members of the delegation reviewed a speech that set forth nationalization as ANC policy. “We decided that the content was inappropriate for a Davos audience. So I drafted a short message…about how the ANC intended to achieve social justice for the majority black people: decent housing, healthcare, decent education, public transport, access to clean water, sanitation and access to what I called ‘the means of production,’ that is, the creation of a black business class. That is all. No capitulation.” According to Mboweni, during Mandela’s encounters with business and government leaders, he began to reconsider his position. “Madiba had some very interesting meetings in Davos with the leaders of the Communist Parties of China and Vietnam,” Mboweni wrote, referring to Mandela by his clan name. “They told him frankly as follows: ‘We are currently striving to privatize state enterprises and invite private enterprise into our economies. We are Communist Party governments, and you are a leader of a national liberation movement. Why are you talking about nationalization?’ It was those decisive moments which made him think about the need for our movement to seriously rethink the issue.”

After Madiba’s death in December 2013, Klaus Schwab hailed his unique legacy:

“Of all the many leaders I have met in the course of my life, none has made a deeper impression on me. His courage, compassion, wisdom and humility were without parallel on the world stage, and his example made him an enduring source of inspiration to people from every walk of life.”

Another significant development at the Annual Meeting was the participation of Chinese Premier Li Peng. The premier’s appearance contributed to the re-establishment of normal relations between China and the West following the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989. The tensions between Europe and China were still tangible. The Chinese government insisted that Li’s trip to Davos be combined with an official visit to at least one European nation. To meet this request, Schwab phoned a number of European foreign ministers. Italy agreed to host Li and his delegation.

President Carlos Andrés Perez of Venezuela had led a large delegation to Davos. On landing back home in Caracas, the president faced a military coup, which failed. The news triggered dismay among participants in Davos. In an exceptional gesture, the World Economic Forum issued a press release fully supporting Perez.

In 1992, the Forum launched a new community, the Global Leaders for Tomorrow (GLTs), composed of 200 young leaders from business, politics, academia, the arts and the media, all of them under 43 years of age and well established through their achievements and positions of influence. The GLTs, who would hold their own Summits, sometimes in conjunction with the Annual Meeting in Davos, would be reconstituted in 2003 as The Forum of Young Global Leaders (YGLs).