In August 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa received recommendations from the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that he appointed in May 2019. The 30-member Commission was tasked with “helping government take advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital revolution, and to identify relevant policies, strategies and action plans that will position South Africa as a competitive global player”.
When accepting the report by the 4IR Commission, Ramaphosa urged the Commission to place 4IR at the centre of economic recovery, to enable the country to emerge from the damaging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, South Africa is not primed to place 4IR at the centre of its economic recovery, let alone development in the near future, owing to a largely digitally illiterate citizenry. If the country was under the illusion that we are ready to take advantage of the benefits of 4IR, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic rudely exposed the long journey that is yet to be traversed.
For South Africa to reap the benefits of 4IR, it needs to quickly catch up with the rest of the world in a number of areas. Chief among these will be to combat the low levels of digital illiteracy of the country’s citizens. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Future of Jobs Report, less than 30% of South Africa’s population have digital skills, compared to a country like Mexico which stands at 42%. At least 44% of organisations in South Africa are finding it difficult to recruit staff with digital skills, whilst 64% of businesses expect to see an increase in positions that require deep technology skills over the next two to three years. The low level of digital penetration in the country is a stark challenge that became more acute with the arrival of the coronavirus on our shores, which forced most people to work and study remotely from their homes. The vast digital gap between rural and urban areas became more apparent, as students in rural areas abruptly halted their studies due to lack of access to computers and the internet, while their urban counterparts were able to continue with their lessons uninterrupted from the comfort of their homes.
When the President presented his Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan to a Joint Sitting of Parliament on 15 October 2020, focusing mainly on labour intensive and temporary job opportunities to provide short term relief from the effects of COVID-19, it was somewhat an admission that we are still far from harnessing the 4IR to drive a job-creating economic recovery. In fact, the 4IR is an antithesis of job creation – at least on a massive scale that the President and his government envisage – given the significant shifts in labour that 4IR has heralded. As it has become common cause, COVID-19 has accelerated the need for a digitally literate citizenry. The WEF report further states that South Africa will not escape the rapid rise of technology and automation in the workplace and the changing needs of employees.
As a country that sees itself as a global economic participant, there is a need for government and the private sector to ramp up digital and technological upskilling programmes to enable our workforce to meaningfully participate in the digital economy. The WEF estimates that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithm. If government does not start with digital upskilling programmes now, we are likely to see more job losses in a few years’ time.
With the President’s economic recovery plan hinged on labour intensive jobs, intended to offset the 2.2 million jobs lost due to the lockdown, he missed an opportunity to place 4IR at the centre of the economy’s recovery and future growth. With the rest of the world fast leaping to the 4IR overdrive, developing countries, including South Africa, are being left far behind and will find it hard to catchup should they not do something soon.
Though the President sought to make 4IR a pillar of his economic reform agenda since taking office in 2018, and align South Africa with international trends, it must be stated that the country is still far off from fully taking advantage of the benefits presented by the 4IR. While it will take a long time to completely undo the huge wreckage of apartheid spatial development on which the current digital rural-urban divide rests, government has not paid sufficient attention to the education and training system to produce a skills set that is congruent with the needs of the global economy, which is increasingly digitally driven. Unless and until this particular gap is narrowed, South Africa will continue to lag behind the 4IR.
Written by Calvin Matlou