Illustration: RUBY-GAY MARTIN
Illustration: RUBY-GAY MARTIN

The frivolous manner in which the issue of industrial revolutions has been discussed in our society in recent times tends to trivialise the developmental challenges we face. It manifests as nothing more than an exercise in cheerful political camouflage.

While societies in the global north enjoy the practical fruits of technological advancement that World Economic Forum founder and renowned economist Klaus Schwab calls “the convergence of digital, biological, and physical innovations”, most parts of Africa are lagging behind.

This convergence has been aptly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Schwab argues that this industrial revolution is different in scale, scope and complexity from any that have come before. This is because 4IR affects all disciplines, economies, industries and governments.

For our part in SA, the complexity 4IR presents us with is further compounded by inequalities that are evident in wealth, income, education and morphology, even after 25 years of freedom. This gets even more glaring when one considers the disparities in access to technology, its platforms and benefits by most South Africans.

It is the goal of this leadership to demystify 4IR and ensure that there is deep understanding of its effect on the lives of ordinary people in our country.

The social groups that are mostly affected by the disruptive innovations of technological digitisation, such as robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing, are the young people who comprise a third of the population. This cohort, who are between 18 and 34 years old, total more than 17-million people, according to the 2019 midyear population estimate. This means our country is robbed of the talents and innovations associated with young minds.

Many of those with no skills spent their youth in the forefront of the struggle for freedom and human dignity. Many did not even finish high school, have never secured decent employment, and live like lost beggars in a country where the elite in society treat them with contempt.

Hence many feel neglected, betrayed and forgotten. Their energies are wasted, because they do not have the requisite means to build their lives to sufficiently and independently support themselves and their families and contribute to the national economy.

It is for this reason that the government, among its critical priorities and interventions, is forging partnerships with business, training institutions and other civil society organs to empower and capacitate young people to be fit-for-purpose and in alignment with the dictates of 4IR. The national human resource development strategy is aimed at building the requisite human capital that is required to overcome emergent challenges, which have equal effect on job availability and prospects.

At the same time, the question of SA’s inherent contradictions in relation to the various cycles of the industrial revolution cannot be ignored. There is no seamless and linear conceptualisation and application of what 4IR implies, given our country’s inherited history and the present. For instance, whereas the second industrial revolution was characterised by a period of growth for pre-existing industries and the expansion of new ones, such as steel, oil and electricity — which are all critical for optimising mass production in manufacturing — SA and Africa as a whole lagged behind. In fact, they have not reached the optimal levels of this cycle of development.

Similarly, with the advent of the third industrial revolution, characterised by advancements in information communication technology, once more SA and the rest of Africa have lagged behind throughout this period of development. By 2016, for example, only a little under 60% of our country’s population had access to the internet in some way. Moreover, in terms of geographic spread, 72% of these people were concentrated in Gauteng.

Take this picture to a continental level, where only 16% of Africa’s total of about 1-billion people are online. It is thus not surprising that our young people feel left behind and excluded from active participation in, and capitalising on, the opportunities available in the knowledge economy. The question to ponder remains at what stage of development are we located in these waves of industrial revolutions.

While the proverbial Western world transitioned from mostly agrarian societies to vibrant industrialised societies through the first three industrial revolutions, Africa remains wallowing in underdevelopment. A point of comfort is the promise of leapfrogging into the future as the growing wave of innovation in countries like Kenya, Rwanda and Senegal takes hold. This is where entrepreneurs and large corporations alike are bringing to the fore multiple new web-based products.

In SA’s case we must focus on capitalising on the demographic dividend, given the youthfulness of our population. That is why the human resource development strategy deserves wide industry support to empower young people, a fifth (3.5-million) of whom live below the lower bound poverty line of R664 per person per month.

Failure to consciously mobilise society-wide interventions and practical programmes to train and reskill young people may lead to further loss of opportunity for development potential. It is encouraging that the departments of higher education and science and technology are making concerted investments to build continuous knowledge-based competencies and capabilities.

At the heart of this journey to engender a SA of our dreams that has e-literate and e-astute citizens is the need to embed technology in our efforts to build critical skills relevant for local conditions. The reality of young people not in education, employment or training, and without relevant expertise and skills, may stand in the way of our global competitiveness and prevent us from keeping apace with current technological changes.

By embracing education and training as a lifelong journey we will be better prepared to adapt to this world, which is changing at a rapid pace. We will be better equipped to derive global economic benefits that are increasingly shifting from being resource-based to knowledge-based.

The recently launched African continental free trade area, with 54 countries as signatories, can be harnessed as a continental platform to transition towards co-operative innovation and shared prosperity in the 21st century.

Overcoming the contextual contradictions characterising our country, is possible by unleashing the possibilities that lie in government, civil society and industry partnerships to maximise 4IR benefits and improve the country and Africa’s competitiveness. It is for this reason that President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed a presidential commission on 4IR, to identify relevant policies, strategies and action plans that will position SA as a competitive global player.

In understanding the depth of our challenges and the complexities of 4IR we cannot wallow in despair. Bland classroom exercises of definitions and descriptions will not unleash our potential to leapfrog the current state of development and harness the changes that can shape a better future for SA and our continent.

• Mabuza is deputy president of SA and chairs the Human Resource Development Council