Margaret Legum, Chairperson on the Board of The South African New Economics Network (SANE)

Wednesday, 25 January, 2006 - 10:54

SN: How has your view of the WEF and WSF changed over the past ten years?ML: The World Economic Forum is a relatively exclusive gathering consisting of key Government and business players. Partic

SN: How has your view of the WEF and WSF changed over the past ten years?

ML: The World Economic Forum is a relatively exclusive gathering consisting of key Government and business players. Participation is by invitation only. The forum is not representative across society and only major players in the global competitive market attend in order to talk about optimal ways to run the economy. 
    However, in the past few years, there has been an outcry over the effect of globalisation on lower income groups, which has resulted in the WEF including some representatives from civil society.

    Over the past three to four years, the WEF agenda appears to have made some adaptations. It no longer preserves the status quo - the discourse has shifted from focusing primarily on pricing strategies to a more inclusive understanding of the social repercussions of business. As a result, there is increased consultation with protestors.

    In comparison, the WSFs slogan "Another world is possible" aims to provide a completely alternate perspective relative to that of the WEF, which is premised on global competitive markets. The WSF discounts the neo-liberal model promoted by the WEF – arguing that this approach perpetuates the imbalance between the rich and the poor.

SN: How do you believe South Africa’s civil society can influence government policy on poverty and the economy? 

ML: We are a true democracy. Our government is genuinely concerned about being democratic. South Africa’s government governs by consent and is not eager to use force to repress protestors. Unlike many other governments, our leadership has a personal connection with the experience of poverty. It is an inescapable reality that civil society is producing protestors because citizens are tired of waiting for delivery. This is worrying for our government as they desire public consensus and are constantly trying to find ways of handling issues of poverty. 

    Since around 1998, government policy has been altered but not changed. There has been a shift in emphasis, in the sense that government is no longer totally dedicated to the global market, they are looking at new models. Up until about 8 years ago, it was believed that the market would correct itself once the country’s fundamentals were right. This was base on the argument that such stability would result in a flood of foreign direct investment. However, this has not been the case and many people question that government interference is negative. It has become increasingly obvious that a developmental state needs a strong government.
   Civil society has lobbied to promote an alternate view of economic justice. Trade unions such as Cosatu, in alliance with government, have informed the shift in government’s approach. This indicates the role or influence of civil society.    Initially, advisors to government came from the corporate sector and there was a substantial amount of training in economics provided to government leaders by stakeholders from this sector. However, the corporate sector no longer has as significant an influence and there is a noticeable resurgence of thinking derived from civil society sources.

   In my view, globalism has reduced democracy. Sovereign institutions that are responsible to electorates have to recover their sovereignty – they must do what their electorates want them to do. At the moment their hands are tied. Capital flight is a threat for any government that does not appear supportive of the private sector and the fear of economic collapse is a significant deterrent. The restoration of local or regional sovereignty is extremely important. Governments must be able to look for mandates from electorates. This is the only way to restore democracy.
SN: What are your thoughts on the first and second economy?

ML: This is an old fashioned ideology. The private sector is not going to solve unemployment. It creates wealth through the maximising of efficiencies and invariably people lose their jobs. On the other hand, the public sector creates jobs using the wealth of the private sector. Civil society should view the private sector as a model of efficiency and the public sector as a source of employment.

    There is a real distinction between the private sector and the public sector. The public sector produces healthy people and supportive infrastructure and institutions, whilst the private sector focuses on strong financial performance. The trick is how to get wealth from the private sector and translate it into work opportunities for society?

SN: What are your views of the grass-root social movements in the current South African context?

ML: These movements represent a true ‘strand’ in civil society. People participating in protest actions are angry, frustrated and helpless. They will not be ignored. It is a universal fact that impoverished people will not “disappear” and lose their voice. Protests from such groups are a constant part of the consciousness of government and they need to be given a platform to express their grievances.

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