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Do we know enough, as South Africans, to flourish in the fourth industrial revolution?

On an almost daily basis we hear about how the enabling technologies of what is termed the fourth industrial revolution, or 4IR, continue to make huge advances in what they can deliver. In turn we hear from Big Tech, governments, academia, business across all industries and the media about how these advances can benefit humanity in general and, in some instances, Africa in particular.

Here in South Africa, elements in government are punting 4IR as being some kind of silver bullet to a lot of our societal, service delivery, economic and unemployment woes.
For some context, the main enablers of 4IR are generally seen to include;
  • The Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Big Data Analytics
  • Cloud Computing
  • Advanced Robotics
  • Additive Manufacturing
  • Augmented Reality

And some of the biggest challenges to deploying this technology in Africa are;
  • Infrastructure – here in South Africa we are all acutely aware of the problems we have from an infrastructure perspective and we all deal with it on a daily basis.
  • Digital Divide – the divide between those that have access to and knowledge of how to use digital technology and those who do not is stark and with such rapid advancement, this can become exacerbated.
  • Regulatory Environment – outdated regulations and lack of regulatory frameworks do not enable supportive policies for the deployment of these.  
  • Funding – these advanced technologies can be prohibitively expensive to deploy.
  • Education and Skills – The 4IR requires a highly skilled workforce with expertise in areas such as data analytics, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

In my opinion, the biggest threat to the successful and sustained deployment of the 4IR in our context is education. The continent faces many challenges in education, from the foundation phase through to tertiary education.

Africa lags behind the rest of the world in providing access to quality education for the majority of our population at all stages of the learning process.

Our education starts with the Foundation Phase – during this phase we cover the groundwork for all future learning, and it is during this phase that we learn the fundamental skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Unfortunately, much of our population do not have access to classrooms, adequately qualified teachers or adequate and relevant learning materials. As a result, much of our population cannot develop the skills to move beyond this phase and either drop out of formal education, or if they do move on, they carry significant barriers to ongoing learning which hinders their progress in later years.

Without a solid foundation in basic literacy and numeracy, students will struggle to develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for success in the 4IR.

As students’ progress through primary and secondary school, they need to acquire more advanced skills, such as computer literacy, critical thinking, and creativity. Besides the problems mentioned already with infrastructure and personnel in the system, outdated curricula and teaching methods adversely affect the quality of education.

Many schools continue to rely on rote learning and memorisation of material which does not encourage the development of critical thinking skills, analysis of data and problem solving which are essential skills to flourish in the 4IR.

Once again, due to the challenges and inequality in providing decent education at this level, the vast majority of students will not be able to access tertiary education whether it be due to dropping out, not satisfying the academic entrance criteria, financial or geographical constraints.

In tertiary education, the skills gap is particularly acute in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. According to the African Development Bank, only 25% of students in Africa are enrolled in STEM programs, compared to 35% in Asia and 50% in Europe. Specifically, the lack of access to digital platforms and tools required at secondary and tertiary level presents a huge problem for students and scholars.

One of the many benefits the 4IR promises to bring is upliftment of the workforce and creation of jobs through automating labour-intensive tasks and, at the same time, creating new higher skilled jobs for the now redundant labourers and new job market entrants to fill.

The fact of the matter is that you can’t take advantage of these benefits if the vast majority of the workforce and new job market entrants do not have the foundational education to enable them to learn the new skills required to do these jobs. In fact, the implementation of this type of technology is seen as threatening to the workforce, as many jobs will be made redundant and if the incumbents cannot pick up the new skills, they will be excluded from the job market.
There is already a special skills shortage in our country which the government often looks to foreigners to fill, causing all kinds of social cohesion issues. This situation could be exacerbated by the rapid implementation of 4IR technology and further open our job market to foreigners to the detriment of the local workforce.  

In conclusion, I believe that South Africa specifically has a good track record in developing globally acknowledged technological innovations and advances and can continue to do so in the future in the context of 4IR. However, in the past these innovations were sometimes only created due to the state ideology and isolation. In more recent times, most of these innovations have been produced by a small proportion of privileged citizens having access to high quality and mostly private education.

With the 4IR, we are asking the broader population to participate at a higher-level utilising new skills for which their education has not prepared them. Without all of our youth being enabled at the foundation phase we are going to have large swathes of the population who will not be able to participate in this new economy and this will exacerbate the digital divide and create further inequality in our society.

We have a lot of work to do as a country and continent to rectify the education issues and this should be done as soon as possible. We have already disadvantaged, if not precluded, at least one generation from benefitting from the 4IR.