Image: 123RF/ Iurii Kovalenko
Image: 123RF/ Iurii Kovalenko

The 10 March voter registration weekend was a reminder that election season has started in earnest. Leaders of political parties and activists went all out garbed in party regalia mobilizing people to register to vote.

This is the time when politicians make all sorts of promises, creating false hopes in the process. With unemployment so high, it is to be expected for job creation to be at the top of the promises that political parties will be making to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Yet, none of them can tell you how they will go about it.

In South Africa we fall prey to empty promises because we allow politicians to take advantage of our vulnerabilities.

We also have this sense of exceptionalism that makes us think we are immune to global trends.

It is exactly this exceptionalism that fooled many to believe that man from Nkandla when he promised to create 1 million jobs in the middle of a global financial crisis.

This time we must ask critical questions to politicians when they promise jobs. They must tell us whence will these jobs come?  

This question is important because global trends show major changes in the workplace.

 A new spectre is at large, haunting the souls of all employed people. It is a spectre of the robot, threatening to render the worker obsolete. The worker is under siege!

Offshoring may have moved jobs from one region to another, but did not substitute the worker in the production chain.

Neither did the introduction of mechanization during industrial revolution displace the worker completely out of the equation.   

Through education and upskilling the threat of mechanization was mitigated and the place of labour in the workplace was secured.  

In the end, the relationship between the worker and the machine became that of coexistence as machines became tools that increased the productivity of the worker on the shop floor.

But this relationship has since evolved, all thanks to the advancement of science and technology, especially artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence, the backdrop of robotics, has turned the tables around. The robot now threatens to completely obviate and render the worker obsolete.

One only need to read Martin Ford’s book, “The rise of the robot” to understand how serious and severe this threat is.

While the title may be discouraging to some readers who may mistake it for science fiction, the crux is in the subtitle, “Technology and the threat of mass unemployment.”

The seriousness and relevance of this topic to our situation here at home suggests this must be a must read for our parliamentarians, policy mandarins, trade union leaders and our youth.  

Reading this book, it soon dawns on you that it is not only manual labourers or menial jobs that are under threat.

This time around the threat is omnipresent. It is across all sectors of the economy and across all levels of employment. The middle class, the educated professionals, too, are under siege.

This is because any job that can be taught, that has a standard operating procedure and that follows some routine, there is nothing that a machine can no longer do.

The power of algorithms has given robots many advantages over humans. Not only is the machine better in precision and efficiency, it can “work continuously and will never get tired or suffer back injury – and it will certainly never file a worker’s compensation claim” observes Ford.

Trust, reliability and perfection may have previously been considered human added value in the workplace, but today’s robots provide all of these far better than humans. 

With workers who come to work late, union members who strike, our youth who can’t even spell, there will be little or no incentive for companies to choose humans over the robot.

In the medical profession, the machines are not only bettering the precision of diagnosis and dosage, they are minimizing deadly human errors in the surgical room. The surgeon will soon join the ranks of the unemployable.

In agriculture, technology has advanced to an extent that farmers can now till hectares of land, plant their crop, put fertilizers and harvest using machines, all without the involvement of labourers.

The farm – the land that is the source of our quarrels here in South Africa – is no longer the sole answer to food security. We already know that a lot of food we consume is produced and processed by machines in the laboratory.

The position of mining as a large employer has reached a twilight stage.  Mining companies are already deploying robots to extract precious metals deep in the belly of earth where it is too dangerous for the human hand to reach.

Meanwhile the arrival of 3D printers has revolutionized manufacturing in a scale never seen before. Factories are occupied by more 3D printers than human beings.

In warehouses robots are packaging, scanning and processing data far quicker and efficient than human beings while vending machines are doing the jobs of till operators.

Where military used to enlist thousands of men and women, the arrival of the drone means that wars can now be waged without boot on the ground.

Going to the streets to join ladies of the night is no longer a profitable option. The arrival of the sex robot is making patrons happy after as there are truly no strings attached.

In a society such as ours that is grappling with high rates of unemployment the rise of the robots is, therefore, poised to further exacerbate our dire situation.

Yet our politicians will be on a frenzy, making all sorts of promises from jobs to radical economic transformation.

It is thus important that as we enter election season we must cast the spotlight on the issue of job creation and pose critical questions to our politicians.

President Ramaphosa’s charm must not dissuade us from asking him to give us examples of countries where the implementation of expropriation without compensation improved economic growth, created new jobs and provided job security to existing ones.  

How can we create equal opportunity for all in a society riddled by historic injustice, where the play field remains uneven, is a question for Mmusi Maimane to answer.  

Julius Malema must tell us how he plans to stop the wheels of mechanization in agriculture and turn our youth in the townships into farm workers.

Not even the man of God, Kenneth Meshoe, must be allowed to duck and dive when we demand to see his plans for job creation. 

The truth is that in a modernizing economy that is becoming highly dependent on machines, political talk about “labour intensive” jobs is simply hogwash. 

Hence we must take these politicians to task and ask the question: whence will these jobs come?

- Malada is a member of the Midrand Group.