Just under 5 years ago a Canadian mining group with interests in South Africa invited me to join a panel at a conference they were hosting at the St Regis Hotel, in Monarch Beach, California. The session at which I was to speak was scheduled to last no more than 45 minutes and included 2 other South Africans speakers. This meant my contribution to the event would - at best - extend for no more than 15 minutes. And for that they were prepared to fly me Business Class from Johannesburg to California and put me up in a luxury suite that could have accommodated the Royal Family.
Our panel discussion was planned to take place on the morning of the second day, in between a presentation on Mongolia by a representative of the International Finance Corporation and a talk by former US Defense Secretary and CIA director Robert Gates. The night before, though, the oranisers had arranged a Mexican-style feast in the enchanting gardens of a 200-year-old Franciscan mission station, San Juan Capistrano at which comedian and former CNN talk show host Larry King was the guest speaker. The one thing mining-types do not need is the encouragement to have a good time, and when we took the stage at 09h00 the next morning the only people present in the hall were a handful of sound engineers, cameramen and waiters. A few delegates wanting to listen to Robert Gates straggled in towards the end of our address, bleary-eyed and seeking medicinal mugs of coffee to neutralise the effects of a savoury carne asada washed down with copious amounts of wine from the Temecula Valley.
For me, though, the conference wasn’t a complete waste of time. I met a man whose views made a huge impression on me and still influence my thinking when discussing a possible solution for South Africa’s troubles.
Walking aimlessly on the terrace outside the venue hall on first morning of the gathering, two gentlemen beckoned me to join their breakfast table. I sat down next to a very neatly dressed and well-groomed middle-aged man, extending my hand in greeting, “I’m David Shapiro from Sasfin in Johannesburg.”
“Alvaro Uribe,” he smiled warmly shaking my hand.
“Nice to meet you, Alvaro. So what do you do?” I asked inquisitively, trying to start a conversation with my new found acquaintance.
“I’m the former president of Colombia,” he responded with a grin.
The mention of the South American country immediately invoked images of paramilitary convoys, headed by open jeeps carrying nasty-looking drug-lords, dressed in combat fatigues and fashionable shades, barking orders at quivering farm hands. But I was soon to learn that my impression was a caricature of the past and that my breakfast guest was the man largely responsible for transforming Colombia from a country torn apart by armed conflict into a secure and stable nation with attractive investment opportunities.
Colombia is the third largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, after Mexico and Spain, with a population of 46m people. In terms of economic output it is probably on a par with South Africa.
Alvaro Uribe Vélez was the president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010. In his key-note address, the former leader confessed that ever since the nation declared independence from Spain in 1810 its liberty had been undermined by murders, massacres, terrorist attacks and civil strife. In Colombia’s 200-year history only 47 had been lived in relative peace. Up until the time he took office he could not recall a single year of his life that was free of violence and unrest, perpetrated mostly by either pro-Marxist groups on the left or paramilitary troops, with close links to narcotic traders, on the right. His father was killed in a kidnapping attempt in 1983 and he, personally, had experienced the cruelty of terrorism. Unacceptably high levels of crime and corruption were destroying hope in Colombia, scaring investors, raising unemployment and driving out skills. The country was on the path of becoming a failed state.
Naturally Uribe’s presentation resonated loudly in my brain. Colombia in 2002 seemed strikingly familiar to South Africa; a nation low on confidence, divided by political discord and frustrated by a lack of investment, jobs, talent and rule. What enthralled me, though, was how Uribe and his administration, working tirelessly and courageously, with astounding success, confronted the guerrillas, dismantled the paramilitaries and fought corruption. Their agenda was clear-cut. First tackle crime, because without peace and security there would be no investment and without fiscal resources the government could not advance the state’s social wellbeing.
Uribe fervently believed that all citizens should participate in the administration’s decision making process and, accordingly, set up agencies in every region to promote dialogue, exchange ideas, discuss policies and build trust. The hearings were open and publicly televised, often continuing for hours. He referred to this concept as “The Communitary State”: a participative government in which there was no division between left and right, no leanings towards liberalism, socialism or bureaucracy, no promises without solutions – chiefly, a country in which confidence was the cornerstone.
His biggest challenge was to enforce law and order and demonstrate military superiority, principally against the guerrillas and drug traffickers, without creating the notion that he was applying the pressure of a strong-arm dictator. His policies were far-reaching but included reducing human rights violations, increasing judicial action against crimes with a high social impact and restoring a visible police presence at all municipalities and at important traffic junctures. By engaging the civilian population more actively, gaining the support of the military and increasing intelligence efforts, government reinstated control over national roads, dismantled paramilitary structures, extradited more than 2000 criminals, hacked the cultivation of illicit crops, cut the crime rate in half and virtually eliminated kidnappings.
The president was not only victorious against crime. He told the audience that the greater the number of bureaucrats, the poorer the country. He restructured over 400 government departments, decreasing payrolls and improving efficiencies, along the way slashing the number of official motor vehicles by a third.
As crime levels diminished his attention turned to reforming the economy. He secured loans from the IMF and World Bank on assurances that he would eliminate excessive government expenditure, open access to markets and introduce sound macroeconomic policies. He provided tax incentives to investors and encouraged private participation in a number of important development projects, providing certainty by pledging not to alter any terms in the future.
In the eight years under President Uribe’s leadership average annual economic growth of Colombia doubled from 2.1% to 4.3%, exports rose fourfold, fixed direct investment trebled, inflation fell from 6.9% in 2002 to 2.5% in 2010, unemployment declined from 16.2% to 11.6%, while mobile phone users climbed from 4.6m to 41m.
On his triumphant journey, 17 attempts were made on his life, cities were bombed and senators, judges and other officials were murdered persevering change. But his efforts did not escape the rest of the world. In 2009 President Uribe was awarded America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian decoration, for his work to improve the lives of his citizens and his efforts to promote democracy and human rights.
Since our breakfast chat Uribe has re-entered politics and was elected a senator in the 2014 parliamentary elections, and despite tensions between him and his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, his popularity among Colombians remains high.
Colombia, like other resource producing nations, has felt the pinch of falling oil and coal prices, and the challenges of completely removing the reactionary forces within the country persist. Regardless, the essence of Uribe’s policies have reverberated in my head every day since returning from my visit to Monarch Beach almost 5 years ago: Confidence is the cornerstone of a successful nation. To achieve this the population must feel safe and protected, because without peace and security there will be no investment, and without fiscal resources the government cannot advance the state’s social wellbeing.