by Andrew Hallet

THE TIMES THEY'RE CHANGING

South Africa and the 'Digital Revolution'

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We live in a fascinating time in history. The world we live in today is forever changing, leaping forward from one constant to the next. If it isn’t social movements pushing for change, it is the technology we have become one with making our lives easier—better, depending on who you speak to. Routines are no longer adhered to in the same way, as the way we move forward as the human race means we have to adapt—take the next step or be left behind.

This constant change is out of need rather than wont. Every aspect of life is faster paced, more intricate than it was ten to fifteen years ago. Not seeking the furthering of knowledge or keeping up with the times is far more detrimental to us as a species than ever before. This thirst for knowledge and upskilling has become a necessity rather than an option.

But why is this the case now? Why has this seemingly drastic change in the way the world operates all of a sudden fallen on this generation? Where is this all leading to?

Well, it boils down to the advances in technology and what is being dubbed the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, with some calling it the ‘Digital Revolution’ and ‘Second Machine Age’.

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia borne of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, this revolution we are currently living out is described as follows: ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution can be described as a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, and impacting all disciplines, economies and industries.’

So what does this mean for us as the human race? More importantly, what does this mean for us living in South Africa?

Well, it is very difficult to tell at this point in time. While we are living in the ‘Digital Revolution’, we are not far enough along to have seen the full face of the beast. We all know that change is happening, and we know we need to keep up with it, but the true change is still an unknown quantity—and that is what is scaring a lot of people.

The advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, and autonomous vehicles mean that sooner than many of us realise, we are going to be living in a world which will render the majority of the human race surplus to requirements. Why hire a human to do a job which a robot is far more capable of doing? Why risk ‘human error’ when a machine can be programmed to ensure consistency in all types of jobs? This is the scary part and as South Africans, we should be more scared than most.

The unemployment rate in South Africa is shocking. We all know this, but many would prefer to bury their heads in the sand than face up to the reality of the situation. In July 2017, research found that 27.7% of South Africans were unemployed—a 13-year high. This means that more than a quarter of the ‘working’ population is unable to find work, feed their families, and provide the most basic of needs for themselves and their loved ones. It is staggering to think that of the people who are able to work in this country, only a small number actually have the privilege of being able to do so. Millions are left out in the cold. That is scary.

While that 27.7% figure is scary now, it is only going to get worse as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ really starts to find its feet in the country. We have already seen in foreign countries how grocery stores are slowly removing cashiers and going for computerised check-out systems.

The friendly face that greets you at the till is in danger of becoming extinct. Again, why spend money on wages when you can deploy computers to do the work for you? There will be no more strikes. There will be no more instances of staff phoning in sick. Computers don’t need a lunch break. Technology is ensuring that life is made easier for those in positions of power, while the rest of us have to settle for the reality that work will soon become even more scarce than we have ever known it to be. That 27.7% actually looks quite good right now.

In a recent interview with The Tangler, Dr Carsten Stöcker, a German national who is an expert in the innovation sector, brought up the subject of job losses due to the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The answer will shock you. It sure shocked me.

Dr Stöcker said: “Researchers came to the conclusion that almost 50% of all jobs in the US are at risk! And I don’t substitute them. If you combine the outcome, it could be far more than 50%. That will have a massive impact on society, few will benefit, and we have to see how we can solve the issues for the rest.”

So how do we curb this seemingly inevitable occurrence?

In the South African context, we need the national government to be part of that ‘solving the issues’ conversation. There are only so many spaces in the working world for people—with even less predicted for the future, so what is going to be done about the rest of us? What plans are in place to ensure that the already disgraceful unemployment rate does not grow even further as the world moves forward with the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’?

It is estimated that 40% of South Africans now have access to the Internet. That is where this conversation needs to start. Until every South African citizen has access to the Internet, we are going to see our people fall further and further behind. The Internet is the cornerstone of all that is happening with regards to the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, so in order for us as a nation to be ready and equipped for what lies ahead, this is a prerequisite, not a privilege.

It would be harsh to say that the government is not doing anything to ensure that the Internet is more far reaching than the 40%, but this roll-out is not happening quickly enough. A step in the right direction came in May of this year when the South African government partnered with the World Economic Forum to launch the ‘Internet for All’ project. As ambitious as the project’s title is, it is a step in the right direction.

Siyabonga Cwele, Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services of South Africa, said at the time to the World Economic Forum’s website: “The partnership with the World Economic Forum and local partners will help us accelerate our efforts to connect South Africans to the benefits of the Internet. We are very pleased to welcome the World Economic Forum to South Africa to partner with the government on Internet for All. We value inclusive, multistakeholder efforts that will help bring many more South Africans onto the internet.”

While this is a noble effort on the part of the South African government, more is needed. Just take Rwanda for example. Rwanda has rolled out a thoroughly successful project called the ‘Digital Ambassadors Programme’. What this program does is provide skills development for over 5,000 people to go into communities and teach over five million (yes, five million) people about the Internet. Knowledge is power, especially with the shift the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is ready to bring to the world as we know it, and the Internet provides that knowledge in abundance.

Janet Longmore, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Digital Opportunity Trust, said: “The Digital Ambassadors Programme brings together government, the private sector, and civil society to help citizens access a growing number of e-services in Rwanda, and to develop and support young women and men as digital champions and job creators. The programme is a collaborative response to community need, and offers a potential model for adoption by South Africa to close the digital divide.”

So why are we not seeing this happening in South Africa? With no disrespect to Rwanda, South Africa is one of the biggest countries on the African continent, so why are we seeing this type of programme succeeding there instead of here? Is it a lack of funding? Is it a lack of knowledge in this regard? Is it political?

In a brilliant, thought-provoking piece written by Rudolf Du Plessis for Business Day, this trend of needing the government to up their game was highlighted once more.

An excerpt from his piece reads: ‘Africa’s cities need sustainable skills, solutions and infrastructure to leapfrog into the mid-21st century. Skills development, especially for youth and women, must be prioritised. Education is also key and governments need to make an active effort to facilitate educational exchanges between cities so experts can share best practices in meeting digital challenges.

‘It is vital that African cities find solutions tailored to their unique socioeconomic and spatial contexts by, for example, combining solutions from the global North with those from emerging actors such as China, Brazil, India and SA.

‘The nexus between the digital economy and development is critical for Africa’s cities. African policymakers, urban planners and the private sector must ensure that the prerequisite infrastructure and skills are in place to gear Africa’s cities for the disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—or face the continent’s cities and their inhabitants being left behind as the “digital divide” widens.’

In late 2016, Labour Deputy Minister iNkosi Phathekile Holomisa presented a paper which was aimed at providing a solution to the problems facing South Africa due to the ‘Digital Revolution’. While all bases were covered in terms of skills development and education at its most basic levels, four points stood out over the rest.

Focusing on digital jobs creates the capacity for technological innovation and adoption in an economy. No economy will remain competitive if they do not invest some effort in developing the digital workforce. Take the example of a very typical job in the motor mechanic. Cars today demand the motor mechanic to be skilled in both mechanics and electronics to be able to service or repair a car.
There must be processes to identify what skills are most in demand in the market and thus prepare job seekers to get better jobs, while reducing the delays businesses face in securing human resources.
Empowering the workforce to be both well-skilled and aware of their rights and responsibilities will prepare workers so that technology is seen as something that complements their daily activities rather than that which replaces them.
We are witnessing a revolution in the workplace brought about by the introduction of technology, the consequence of which is that the nature of work is changing, with jobs either being transformed or made obsolete. Assisting workers to adapt to the new environment is critical to ensure that there can be sustained socio-economic development.
These points sum up exactly what is required and push home the point that nobody is ‘safe’ anymore—unless you adapt. This is a sign of the times and we need to move with them. Again, knowledge is power. We need that power as South Africans to survive. That may sound dramatic, but it, ultimately, is the truth.

So, the reality is that for South Africans to survive the fast-paced change brought about by the ‘Digital Revolution’, constant upskilling, training, and greater education is required — not to mention the proper systems being in place and adequate infrastructure.

We cannot sit still here. As has been mentioned already in this article, the world is not going to wait for South Africa to catch up - it is a serious case of sink or swim, and I know I want to be ready with my swimming costume on—not a weight tied around my ankle due to a lack of forward thinking and innovation on the part of our government and the private sector.

We are all in this together, so it is vital that we pool resources and ensure that the South Africa we love is ready to meet the changing of the times head on.

Andrew Hallet

 

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