Investment conference or investment con?

Cyril at summit
Summiteer Cyril

By John Fraser

It was a little bit like the Oscars.  But the Oscars are normally better organised.  

The main day of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Investment Summit – on Wednesday –  was rushed through, in parts, at a speed which defied logic.    Unless that is, you did not want too close an inspection of what was happening.  Surely not?

Not all of it was played at triple-speed.   The President delivered two speeches at a measured pace, filled with messages of confidence and reassurance to businesses.   He done well.

The recent Springbok win helped a lot, was the subject of much comment, with the MTN CEO even donning a Bok jersey.   The mood was uplifting.

However, the bulk of the day rattled along much slower.   Several panel sessions and breakaway sessions were over-stuffed with over-talkative participants.   There was no time for real debate or discussion.

The clock is ticking, you see.   What’s next?

Halve the number of these waffle sessions, prune at least a third of participants from each panel, and there could have been some real value, some debate, real interaction.  But common sense was an elusive virtue in the over-air-conditioned atmosphere of the Sandton Convention Centre.

As was efficiency.   You would be released for a tea break, and the tea wasn’t ready.  Even worse with the lunch break, where the wait was very long.     I am not sure whether the organisers were to blame for this shameful lapse in hospitality, or if it was the caterers.  Either way, it left a sour taste in the mouth.  (And the food itself was hardly impressive.  It may have been local, and it wasn’t as awful as one encounters at many such events,  but it wasn’t that lekker either).

If the panel sessions were long, waffly, rushed, and of limited benefit, the announcements of investments were made with all the skill and coordination of the England team being clobbered by the Bokke.

A conveyor-belt of delegates made their announcements and grinned for photos with a very patient Cyril – hence the resemblance to the Oscars. New business fora with Japan and the USA were launched, as were two industry masterplans.

And there was just enough time for a grumpy Frenchman to grumble about BEE.

Some company bosses were offered the mike and invited to give a brief overview of their investments.    However, too many announcements were speed-read by the competent, but gabbling and rushed, MC.

In batches of a dozen or so, names and numbers were flashed on a screen, while she revved up her vocal delivery.  ‘Just a Minute’ on speed.

What a mess.

At the end of the session, the President was able to announce the day’s total of pledges, amounting to R363 billion.   He added to this an extra R8bn worth of pending decisions – thus sowing confusion, and raising some doubts over the whole exercise.

Nonetheless, all credit to the President and his team.  They surpassed last year’s R300bn and are well on the way to their five-year target of R1.2 trillion.

One big, fundamental doubt has been expressed by some commentators.   Many announcements were made by development funding institutions and by state companies.

Sanral and Transnet are mandated to maintain and improve infrastructure.  It is unlikely they have announced their new projects as a result of Presidential pressure.  Why include them?

The same goes for the BRICS Bank, and the IDC.  Both are mandated to spend and would have spent anyway.  Is it right to scoop them up in this exercise to inflate the overall numbers?

One big off-stage benefit might have been the ability to showcase South Africa to hundreds of foreign delegates, who did have the chance to mingle and to network.  As so often at these events, the discreet corridor conversations will already have planted the seeds for some fruitful future projects.   One must hope so.

PR seems to have eclipsed practicality and common sense at this event, but at least it gave South Africa a chance to pump out another positive message, to underpin the rousing sentiment following the rugby victory.

However, if one were given a chance to watch the focused, triumphal and stimulating rugby, or to endure this lengthy and frustrating conference, I bet I know which one most people would have opted for.

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