In Davos, the sublime mixes with the ridiculous on a regular basis but perhaps nowhere more than the South African Bar in the Belvedere Hotel. While by day, Davos attendees are wowed by mind expanding commentary from the world's thought leaders, at night it's nothing short of a festival of networking and champagne quaffing at the Belvedere. This year's hot ticket is the free bar provided all week by the good people of South Africa. South African beauties sporting the latest in Jo'burg fashions provide Xosa face painting and as many free delicious sugar cane cocktails as the thought leaders (and hangers on like me) could possibly take. Davos delegates drift in and out of the packed bar in between parties given by the likes of McKinsey, Standard Chartered Bank, Google and PWC. And, I admit, I was one of them.
I dutifully accepted my face paint (that's me on the right with my producer Meg) while drinking a delicious cocktail (alcohol free I might add, though that's no defence) and eating delicious Macadamia nuts (who knew South Africa exported these? I thought they came from Hawaii!). But when a similarly-face painted South African business leader reminds over his drink that a quarter of the country's population is unemployed, I stop stuffing my face with nuts and put down the fruit cocktail. Last year alone around 1 million employed South Africans lost their jobs. With only around 15 million truly employable people, this is an incredible blow. Why is the government paying for my free drink when there are thousands closer to home that could use one much more than I could?
In fact, on the employment front the truth is both better and worse. A consultant for the South African government shares with me the next day more of the thinking around unemployment. It's lower than 25% because many people are employed in the grey economy - not telling the tax man about their earnings from working for cash. It's also higher - a huge number of South Africans have been unemployed for so long they are no longer counted in the official figures. Making matters worse, a huge number are engaged in the black market or the growing criminal market.
A glance at my Economist magazine tells me some additional sobering facts. Third Quarter 2009 GDP fell 2.1% and 2010 recovery growth is only expected to be around 2.8%, the same as the meagre growth expected in the United States. However unlike the US where inflation thankfully remains next to non-existent for now, South Africa battles with inflation with consumer prices growing at a rate around 7.1%. Add to this fact that South Africa is believed to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country and it becomes even stranger that Zuma's tourism board still has the budget to fund free drinks for millionaires (and me). One American CEO I interview during the week tells me about the crafty bowls and hats he received from the South African tourist board throughout the week.
If they were anything like the sexy fashion being touted at the bar, I'm sure they were worth taking home to give to his family. I even offer to buy the fantastic beaded bodice sported by one hostess after she's finished with it for the week in a desperate attempt to give back for what I've taken from these good people! (The hostess demures, saying only that it is made by a fashion designer known as Judy. I immediately google 'Judy', 'South Africa' and 'fashion designer' upon returning home - no luck. I will remain beaded bodice-less and in debt to the country for my drinks.)
But will free drinks and lovely gifts convince people who weren't otherwise going to visit South Africa to do so? According to the consultant there is a growing feeling of panic amongst those putting on the FIFA football World Cup in June and July that not enough people from the rest of the world are coming to watch football in a few months time. But ticket prices are far from cheap - £600 is the advertised price in London Tube Station adverts.
At a time when everyone is watching their pennies it's going to be easier to justify a Sky Sports package than it is to fly to the Southern Hemisphere. By all accounts it'll be a technical success - the Business leader I speak to says the preparations are meticulous - from the catering to the broadband it'll be a real treat to attend. But even the consultant says it was ridiculous to put the World Cup in South Africa in the first place - but he places the blame at FIFA's doorstep for choosing to hold it there rather than the South African's.
Of course sponsoring Davos in this way is nothing new - India and Brazil have both hosted similar bars and lavished World Leaders with thoughtful gifts in past years to help convince the world that they should be taken seriously.
But when the wife of an American CEO recounts what it was like to watch South Africa's President Jacob Zuma in action, the sublime tilts even more towards the ridiculous. When he was asked if he believed in gender equality (a big theme at this year's conference) he says, "Yes. I love every one of my three wives equally." Lovely. (Zuma is a polygamist.)
I think back to the last time I visited South Africa, ten years ago now, and the tremendous feeling of hope that the country inspired in me. In my previous life as a Political analyst for UBS I went for the elections in 1999 - the second set of democratic elections - when Thabo Mbeki took over from Nelson Mandela and South Africans braved long queues to pass their vote. The feeling of hope from Central Banker to those who lived and worked in a township I visited outside Johannesburg was palpable and infectious. I've not been back since 2000 so I can't comment on what the feeling on the ground might be.
However, while in Davos I also spoke to Haakon Magnus, the Crown Prince of Norway. He told me very movingly about the inspiration behind Global Dignity which he started with John Hope Bryant, whom I also interviewed. Global Dignity started when Prince Haakon met a woman dying of AIDS in South Africa who - instead of giving up and preparing to die - became an activist and helped others who were suffering of HIV and AIDS in her community.
I come away from Davos feeling that South Africa's story would be told much better through the eyes of this woman. Leave the parties to those who can really afford it - the McKinseys and Googles of this world. After all, I thought Davos was about improving the state of the world?