/ 10 November 2022

South Africa must bridge digital divide to best benefit from 4IR

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 much anticipated fourth industrial revolution (4IR) era is upon us. President Cyril Ramaphosa established a commission on 4IR in 2019, which was tasked to identify relevant policies, strategies and action plans to position South Africa as a competitive global player. This included making recommendations regarding frameworks and the roles of various sectors of society within the broad plan.

However, that fast-approaching era became a reality when South Africa reported its first Covid-19 case in March 2020. Covid-19 accelerated the shift to the 4IR; the pandemic reshaped the economy, the workforce and life in general globally. The future of 4IR in South Africa will depend on whether or not these policies are effective. 

The possibilities and realities of the 4IR have proven to shape strategic policies across various spheres of life — including the national government, academia, schools, civil society and the private sector. As strategic policies take shape and further develop, there is a need to pose a question — what direction should these policies take to address the trajectory of the 4IR now and beyond? 

Oftentimes in South Africa, education is deemed the most important tool to a better and advanced life. However, socioeconomic issues such as poverty still plague the country. Information communication technology (ICT) in the classroom is often viewed as a way towards resolving South Africa’s education challenges, but for many, especially in rural areas, it remains a dream yet to be lived. 

Ensuring adequate integration of ICT in education has been severely limited by operational and strategic challenges. A Statista report found that only 7.7% of households in Africa had computers in 2019. 

The gap to access digital platforms in the current education system became clear during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa. The crisis clearly showed the many inequities in our education system, from the computers required for online education to supportive environments for learners.

Private schools had the ability to do this due to advanced technology and adequate infrastructure, however many disadvantaged schools were lagging due to poor technology infrastructure. Those from privileged backgrounds found their way around closed school doors to alternative learning opportunities, while those from disadvantaged backgrounds were shut out when schools were closed. 

The department of basic education’s Action Plan to 2024 report agrees that technology-enhanced learning has not advanced in South Africa as predicted. A survey by Statistics South Africa found that only 10.4% of households in the country have access to home internet, while only 22% of households owned computers or laptops. 

Many public school learners are still restricted to printed textbooks or radio and television broadcasts. This results in a general lack of digital literacy among learners and even where there is digital literacy, there is lack of access to the tools required. 

4IR offers one of the best development and advancement opportunities in South Africa and the world, however, it is crucial to understand the pros and cons that it poses on our livelihoods and education system. It was for this reason that the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) hosted a two-day dialogue titled “The Future of Work 4IR” through its Institute for the Future of Fork (IFOW) in Pretoria on 19 and 20 October 2022. 

The event brought together role players from academia, government, global development agencies and civil society to discuss the role of technology. Discussions also covered the required skill sets for the future, how current skill sets may be of use in the future, and how this new trajectory will affect economic growth in the country and the African continent. 

The senior director of the institute, Tseliso Mohlomi, said, “TUT is the biggest contact university in the country because it hosts over 65 000 students who are mostly from previously disadvantaged communities, which means the basic education they would have received might not have prepared them for university. Then what they receive from the university may not necessarily prepare them for work.” 

Mohlomi said the university established the institute to close the gap between the skills that universities provide and the skills that are needed in business and industry. TUT worked with key players in business and industry to better understand the skill sets required by various industries so that it can adapt curriculums and produce work-ready graduates. 

With 4IR making its way quicker than anticipated, many jobs will be considered redundant. However, that does not have to be the case. One of the event’s participants, Nelson Ijumba from Coventry University, advised that jobs don’t need to be redundant but emphasised the importance of reskilling and upskilling people to learn the digital technology skills that will be required in future. 

He further emphasised the importance of digitising work processes and encouraging a culture of online learning and teaching. To produce graduates that are able to further develop and be a part of the revolution, the education system needs to adapt. It must produce graduates who have the required skills and who are flexible, agile and adaptable. 

Although down from record highs during the Covid lockdowns, our official unemployment rate is still very high at 33.9%. A 2019 McKinsey paper found that adopting digital technologies early could result in a net gain of 1.2 million jobs for South Africans by 2030. In order to fill these jobs, we need graduates with advanced technology experience and skills.

However, the reality in South Africa is that many school learners are from homes without strong technological infrastructure. For us to ensure equal, inclusive, and accessible digital technology education, it is crucial to focus on socioeconomic issues that further exacerbate digital divides. 

Finding long lasting solutions to socioeconomic challenges is crucial to ensure equal access to digital technology. One solution is through entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship in the country helps our economic growth and creates jobs. Economic transformation policies should include investing in the youth and encouraging and supporting entrepreneurship.

Additionally, education system reform should include financial literacy and entrepreneurial training. There is also a need to enhance skills development mechanisms that will enable young entrepreneurs to excel rather than merely survive. 

Development finance institutions such as the Industrial Development Corporation, Small Enterprise Finance Agency and commercial banks should start thinking about ways to design and package funding products specifically aimed at enabling young entrepreneurs.  This is especially true for businesses in the technology, analytics, manufacturing and telecommunication sectors that require considerable funding to get started. This will require strong collaboration between the private sector, government, the education sector and financial institutions. 

Lastly, there is an urgent need to focus and invest in advanced technical skills as this is an essential part of preparing the youth for job-specific tasks in the 4IR era. This will involve investing in education for computer programming, coding, analytics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotics, scientific tasks to develop the necessary technology-based knowledge and capabilities to perform specialised tasks.  

Naledi Ngqambela is the research output coordinator at the Rivonia Circle, a knowledge hub for policy and political alternatives.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.