/ 16 April 2020

Walk the talk: Creating the capacity for the fourth industrial revolution

The fourth industrial revolution is a major contributor to disruptions to higher education and the education system as a whole
The fourth industrial revolution is a major contributor to disruptions to higher education and the education system as a whole. (John McCann/M&G)


The Washington-based think-tank, the Brookings Institution, last month released a report on Africa’s trajectory for the next decade, including a damning chapter on the continent’s preparedness for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The opening lines of the chapter said, ominously: “So far, it does not appear that Africa has yet claimed the 21st century, as it still lags behind in several indicators essential for a successful digital revolution.” This is particularly concerning, considering that Africa has lagged behind in the three previous industrial revolutions. According to the report, the majority of African firms reported moderate to deficient levels of business preparedness for key 4IR technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing and the internet of things (IoT), among others.

Across the globe, progress has been defined by the ability of humans to adapt to change. Here, the continent has often missed the call. Our late arrival to the first three industrial revolutions has led to infrastructure gaps that still exist today. Of course, there are different schools of thought on the 4IR. On the one hand, many think it is the key to our fortunes and will provide solutions to some of our most deep-seated challenges. On the other hand, there is a warranted fear that it will widen our disparities and worsen many of the challenges we face as a continent. Last year, it emerged from the World Economic Forum on Africa, which was held in Cape Town, that the 4IR has the potential to turbocharge the socio-economic development across Africa.

In 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that through the Presidential Commission on the 4IR, technologies would be used to elevate South Africa’s developmental agenda. The commission has made eight recommendations that will put South Africa’s fortunes on the upward trajectory. The emergence of this commission and the recommendations have stressed how important it is that we position ourselves in such a way that we are not playing catch-up but rather that we are leading the revolution. It is a given that for economies to tap into the economic potential of the 4IR, there needs to be strengthened collaboration between governments, businesses, academia and civil society.

In the past seven weeks on this platform, I have addressed seven of these recommendations. The first is to build human capacity in the area of the 4IR; the second is to establish the National AI Institute; the third is to create the Advanced Manufacturing Institute (AMI); the fourth is the establishment of a National Data Centre; the fifth is to incentivise the adoption of 4IR technologies and the emergence of future industries and platforms; the sixth is to review, amend or create policy and legislation; the seventh is to build 4IR infrastructure, which integrates with existing economic and social infrastructure. This week I address the eighth and final recommendation, which is to establish a 4IR strategy implementation co-ordination council in the presidency.

We cannot deploy any of the recommendations made by the commission without an overarching council to oversee it. The council will co-ordinate government departments responsible for 4IR-related programmes. In addition to this, the council will co-ordinate initiatives across the public and private sectors, labour and academia. 

This, of course, is no easy feat. It will require resourcing and budget allocation aligned to the mandate to ensure that there is a single point of co-ordination with government departments for the council. There are problems, however. For one, South Africa’s economic growth has been dealt a further blow by the coronavirus in recent weeks, amid a host of other issues. Then, of course, we must take into account how fragile the economy was before the pandemic. Growth has remained below the government’s target in the National Development Plan — which serves as the country’s economic blueprint  — consistently since the 2008 global financial crisis. South Africa’s economy is still primarily predicated on labour-intensive sectors such as manufacturing, which makes up 13% of GDP and mining, which makes up 8%. This has been to our detriment. We have seen the effect knocks to these sectors can have on the overall economy. Even before the national lockdown, production in both sectors remains too low to grow the economy truly. 

Just this month, the Reserve Bank forecast that the economy would contract by as much as 6.1% this year. It also anticipates that the country’s budget deficit could exceed 10%. Unfortunately, this limits the state’s capacity to directly invest in and take ownership of the industries it may choose to support. Although collaboration across the public and private spheres could be the answer, the state would need to leverage and build on its relationships. It is important to note that although this will be led and regulated by the government, it is not solely a government programme. The hope, of course, is that this collaborative effort will see South Africa emerge with the technological capability and production capacity driven by the 4IR to propel the country forward towards its social and economic goals.

Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises for Ramaphosa on the Commission