Drums, smoke signals and writing were the main forms of communication technology in the world during the premodern period popularly known as the agricultural revolution. During the first three industrial revolutions, communications technology evolved through a convergence of linotype and press, telegraphy, telephony and news media, as well as digitisation and networking.

At the Davos World Economic Forum in 2019 the theme was “Globalisation 4.0”, a concept driven by the fourth industrial revolution.

In SA there is a big buzz around the fourth industrial revolution, but the country is still stuck in the third industrial revolution, if not the second, especially regarding commutations technology.

SA was on par with the rest of the world with information and communication technology (ICT) since the start of the first three industrial revolutions. The first newspaper published in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Cape Town in 1800. The first telegraph in SA was launched on December 2 1859. The first telephones were installed in Cape Town in 1878. Computers date back to 1921 in SA; the internet started in 1991, cellphones in 1994, and Microsoft Windows arrived in 1995.

The only setback in this evolution of ICT in SA has been the growing inequality since the dawn of democracy. By the World Bank’s estimate, SA is the world’s most unequal country, divided by ethnic inequality and discrepancies in the level of development between different sectors. These obstacles result in disparities in access to ICT. To address this challenge, the government and private sector need to sink their teeth into the third industrial revolution, to grow and improve the lives of our people.

The success of the first and second industrial revolutions was enriched by a communication, energy and transportation matrix and accompanying infrastructure that comprised the general-purpose technology that connected firms. The third industrial revolution is about the internet, digital transformation and innovation. The government and the private sector are lagging behind in all three areas. 

To speed up internet access the government must facilitate sweeping telecoms reform by fully implementing its ICT policies, a regulatory system and quickly releasing spectrum by creating a wholesale open-access network that has a clear shareholding, funding, decision-making, and operating model. The radio frequency spectrum targets for mobile broadband should aim for 90% coverage countrywide.

Just one provincial government out of nine provinces takes digital transformation seriously

The Passenger Rail Agency of SA, Eskom, Telkom, Sentech, Broadband Infraco, the SA Post Office, State Information Technology Agency, SA Local Government Association, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and industry associations — with the communications, telecommunications and postal services minister — should have an imbizo to unpack how they can eliminate silo mentality, collaborate and share the existing infrastructure to speed up broadband connectivity in the country.

The third industrial revolution (1969-?) is the digital revolution, and digital transformation (the application of digital technologies to fundamentally affect all aspects of business and society) is the next stage of advancement. Artificial intelligence (AI), automation, robotics and the internet of things are key focus areas for harnessing digital transformation to drive performance and productivity.

Just 8% of SA businesses are digital leaders, according to the 2018 Dell Technologies digital transformation index. Just one provincial government out of nine provinces takes digital transformation seriously.

The private sector should also have a clear digital vision and strategies to support digital transformation and culture. The government should speed up the implementation of the 2017 e-government strategy.

Business suicide

SA has the lowest share of young companies among emerging economies globally‚ and elsewhere young‚ high-growth firms known as “gazelles” are playing a leading role in innovation. Yet most SA start-ups operate at a small scale; few have international customers or ambitions to add to the low number of “unicorns” in SA.

Innovation is the lifeblood of every organisation, and for digital transformation to drive performance and productivity, businesses need to innovate faster, develop bigger ideas that reach a broader audience and ensure their speed to market is significantly quicker. The wait-and-see approach by SA corporates is a path to business suicide.

It was sobering to hear a Nigerian delegate in Davos saying the country is somewhere between the second and the third industrial revolutions. This indicates that for Africa the buzz about the fourth industrial revolution is misleading.

The SA government and private sector should address the obstacles preventing them from taking the third industrial revolution to its logical conclusion, before thinking about the fourth.

• Nxumalo, founder of business analytics and IT company Idas, chairs the KwaZulu-Natal Black IT Forum and serves on the IT advisory committees of the Mangosuthu and Durban universities of technology.