Is SA really ready for the fourth industrial revolution?
There is great enthusiasm for the fourth industrial revolution in SA. But are we ready for it? Not everyone thinks so
The keynote speech of US-based futurist George Friedman at a fourth industrial revolution (4IR) summit held earlier this month in Johannesburg opened a can of worms. Friedman appears to have boarded a plane and come all the way to Africa only to tell a gathering that SA should go back to the old way of doing things.
Friedman believes SA should take a step back to the third, or even the first and second, industrial revolutions for answers on how to lift a quarter of its population out of unemployment and despair.
Instead of trying to skip the phases that developed economies such as the US, China and Japan underwent, SA needs to place far more emphasis on a low-wage export system, Friedman said.
It means SA needs to develop industries to absorb low and unskilled labour. This, coupled with cheap labour, will attract business. And SA will earn money from exports, he told representatives of technology companies as well as executives and government officials.
"A vast part of the SA population is so impoverished that it won’t fully benefit from 4IR. China took advantage of its low wage rate and in essence exported labour. It is now one of the leaders of 4IR. SA needs to do the same," Friedman said.
It’s an unpopular opinion. But does it have merit? And does it mean that SA cannot expect technology to assist its growth trajectory? With growth of just 0.8% in 2018, there is no question that SA is in trouble.
But the MD of Deloitte Consulting for Africa, Thiru Pillay, disagrees with Friedman, saying he doesn’t understand SA’s context.
"[Friedman] articulates a very linear, one-dimensional approach to economic development," says Pillay.
"Everybody agrees that we have [the] problem [Friedman mentioned], but people do not agree with his vision for our society."
Friedman doesn’t have a vision for our country, says Pillay. "He has a very technocratic view about how to solve one problem — and we are not a one-problem country." Pillay says SA has "deep technology adoption and a sophisticated services economy". At the same time, the unemployment rate is 27% and 17-million South Africans rely on social grants from the state.
Wits vice-chancellor and principal Adam Habib says Friedman doesn’t understand that SA is not made up only of townships. "SA is both Alexandra and Sandton in the same place."
One of SA’s biggest problems, Friedman said during his address, is that people don’t know how to raise themselves out of poverty. SA has a challenge of "social mobility".
He pointed to the fact that a lot of people are very angry.
Pillay and Habib agree that SA’s marginalised communities should not be forgotten, were SA to rush into new tech.
"He’s right in identifying the problem. He’s right in us having to be pragmatic about it," Habib says.
"Where he is wrong is he assumes we can only do one thing and not another."
However, Habib says it is good to have a contrarian view and agrees that SA needs to deal effectively with those who are disenfranchised by unemployment.
SA’s unskilled cannot be ignored. "It’s an important thing to mention because in our policy frameworks we seem to forget it," Habib says.
"People often say: ‘Everybody needs to get decent jobs.’ But what do people mean when they say ‘decent’?" Habib asks, explaining there are many steps to achieving economic equality in SA.
"How are you going to get someone to create a computer program when they haven’t finished school and don’t have literacy or a numeracy foundation on which to build the skills set?"
If SA is to benefit fully from 4IR, it needs to go beyond talk.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 4IR commission, announced in February, is the latest in a number of policy initiatives that recognise the importance that technology has for the economy.
But it isn’t the first. Independent analyst and researcher in ICT policy and regulation Charley Lewis says the National IT Forum of the late 1990s had a similar mandate. "We were arguing for ICT to be positioned at the level of the presidency then, already."
SA has in the past participated in the UN’s Broadband Commission of May 2010, with the cabinet adopting a national broadband policy called SA Connect in 2013. It aimed to deliver 100% broadband connectivity to government facilities by 2020 and broadband access to 90% of the country’s population by the same year.
Another policy document, the National e-Strategy, gazetted in late 2017, seeks to address the ICT skills gaps in SA.
Already, concerns have been raised about the 4IR commission’s mandate and the government’s inability to create policy and investment that will help re-skill those people whose jobs are now redundant.
Lewis says immediate priorities are the finalisation of the Electronic Communications Act and the allocation of spectrum to broadcasters and telecommunications operators.
Spokesperson for the recently renamed communications & digital technologies department Nthabeleng Mokitimi-Dlamini says the government is committed to the success of the 4IRSA partnership, which will facilitate dialogue to shape a 4IR policy.
It is an initiative of the universities of Fort Hare and Johannesburg, Wits, the government and Telkom.
The 4IRSA partners are to provide a research report to the 4IR commission, says Mokitimi-Dlamini. This will become a strategic document that will serve as a base for developing a national strategy for 4IR by the government.
There is no question that the 4IR strategy must pay special attention to SA’s unique problems, some of which Friedman mentioned. The technology that SA uses to drive growth must narrow rather than widen the inequality gap.