Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently formed the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Africa has the opportunity to be both a fast follower as it attempts to catch up with global trends, and a first mover as it shapes the fifth industrial revolution.

The fourth industrial revolution holds many challenges for the future of Africa, not least because this fourth in a series of global industrial insurgencies was, like all its predecessors, not out of Africa, but from outside of Africa. In a time yet to come, Africa will be well poised to create the ensuing revolution, and that version of economic insurrection may not be industrial at all.

As global society enters the age of self-governing technology, it may well, quite paradoxically, simultaneously be entering the era of exploring what it means to be truly human. In this regard Africa may not need to leapfrog at all. As the birthplace of humanity, Africa has in its DNA the deep knowledge of what it means to be human as part of an enormous number of apparently disparate communities — Africa is already home to over 2,000 languages.

This remarkable competence to navigate extreme social diversity and create meaning through others may be one of Africa’s greatest future exports and foreign direct investment attractions as societies grapple for meaning and belonging in what will be ever-diversifying global communities in the fifth industrial revolution.

Perhaps it is intellectual laziness, confounded by Africa’s complexity, that has often limited perspectives on the continent to beads, drums and animal prints. It is easy to detect findings that describe Africa’s challenges: HIV, malaria, TB, tribalism, poverty, civil war, corruption and dictators with excessive and apparently invulnerable periods of tenure in power.

The solutions seem equally obvious at first glance: develop the uncultivated agricultural sector, expand tourism and ensure value-added industries around natural resources, specifically in mining.

But patently, despite the presenting simplicity of challenges and solutions, Africa remains a largely unresolved conundrum for most Western strategists. Many have arrived with a “business-in-a-box” approach, moulded from Western models of operation, only to discover at their cost the utter impossibility of a copy-and-paste approach, despite their proven track records in the West.

We may be entering a time in which Africa, therefore, deserves a great deal more investigation. And the line of questioning must extend beyond why Africa remains so resistant to Western models and must include an appreciative interrogation of Africa’s nuanced identity. Even the most rational two-by-two-matrix strategist must recognise the potential value of this future perspective and its clear distinction from a common Western paradigm in which self-serving short-termism has all but annihilated a sense of systemic awareness.

The Western strategist might recoil from such distinction, believing it to be inefficient and even mythically opaque. But Africa will not be defined by strategists. 

What appear as peculiarities today will represent much of the norm as Africa’s demographic dividend starts to yield opportunity. By that time Western “rigour” must have adopted alternative strategic models that define relationships beyond a tactical continental dalliance. Africa — fluid, dynamic, complex and diverse — is here for the very long term and the potential for learning about and from Africa is boundless.

• Mostert is director of the Institute of Futures Research at the University of Stellenbosch Business School