In February 2014, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg joined about 20 Forum of Young Global Leaders (YGL) members in dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.
The theme of the discussion was “Active citizenship through leadership”. YGL is a body comprising a select group of young leaders worldwide, an initiative of the World Economic Forum.
Welcoming the participants, Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang said the foundation was proud of the dialogues, which aim to influence policy outside formal policy-making.
This was the second event since former South African president Nelson Mandela’s death and through these dialogues; the message was that the foundation would continue to fulfil his legacy. Mr Hatang encouraged young people to be part of Mandela’s living legacy.
YGL Tumi Makgabo was the MC of the event, and credited fellow YGL Mandla Sibeko for initiating the dialogue.
The discussion was aimed at being a frank, off-the-record discussion around the theme.
Mr Bloomberg began his address by briefly introducing himself. He said he was born in 1942 to a blue-collar family in Boston, Massachusetts. After high school, he went to John Hopkins University to study physics but later switched to engineering, graduating in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science in engineering. He then went to business school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His working career began on Wall Street and 15 years later he started his own business.
He became mayor of New York City in 2001, serving three terms in total.
During his tenure as mayor, he increased New Yorkers’ life expectancy by three years, brought down the crime rate, and banned smoking in workplaces and public areas.
Mr Bloomberg emphasised the importance of education, saying that without a high school certificate, you are in trouble. “Even our garbage collectors require a high school qualification,” he said.
Young global leader Acha Leke mentioned that young people often opted to stay in the private sector rather than work in the public sector, and asked Mr Bloomberg if perhaps that was a disadvantage.
Mr Bloomberg said there was very little difference in working in the two sectors, saying that what mattered was the recognition that a person was making a difference in what they did, be it respect or acknowledgement. People want to feel respected, he said.
He mentioned that for him, that people could come to him and thank him for saving their lives or bringing down crime was enough for him.
Another delegate, Mohammed Kamil, asked Mr Bloomberg whether he would get involved in helping the continent with, for example, low-cost housing. “We need a lot of help in Africa,” he said.
Mr Bloomberg said the private sector cannot be a substitute for governments. What the private sector can do is set an example, and let the public sector learn and act on those learnings.
On the best model to derive capital for cities, Mr Bloomberg was quick to point out that cities would be better served to create jobs in the service and retail industries – jobs for the workforce that needs them. He said that focusing on, for instance, technology companies would not work, as not all business ideas from that sector would be successful.
“Not every idea will be as successful as Twitter or Facebook,” he said.
In New York, around 355 000 jobs were created in the tourism industry only because that was a sector with which one could work. It offered the right people the jobs they needed.
Mr Bloomberg also debunked the idea of the necessity of a minimum wage, saying that any job was better than no job at all. It would be better to assist those who were trying to put food on the table with a cash credit rather than raise the minimum wage, which would lead to fewer jobs.
In closing, he advised the young leaders to prove legislators wrong – that there is much that we all can do with responsible citizenship through leadership.
Government leaders often make laws that are not in the public interest – that they know people don’t want. But that is a political problem. Leadership can fix it, and it does not necessarily have to come from the public sector, Mr Bloomberg said.