A chance or curse for labour

2018-09-16 10:29
Mine workers protest outside the Khomanani mine in Rustenburg in 2013. They were protesting against a cut in jobs. The question is: If workers embrace the fourth industrial revolution, will that provide better working conditions and opportunities? PHOTO: Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy

Mine workers protest outside the Khomanani mine in Rustenburg in 2013. They were protesting against a cut in jobs. The question is: If workers embrace the fourth industrial revolution, will that provide better working conditions and opportunities? PHOTO: Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy

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In the 1960s a concern was raised at home and in a church I attended about Neil Armstrong’s daring mission to the moon. I remember Mrs Motloung, our neighbour, saying: “These people are going to die, they are upsetting God.” In 1969, as we all know, Neil Armstrong became the first man to land on the moon, on Apollo 11. My friends and I were not clear how to react to this daredevil mission, save to say it seemed a mission impossible.

As is well known now, the fourth industrial revolution – 4IR – is now firmly upon us and it is common cause that this visionary concept is about knowledge evolution as explained in history.

The first industrial revolution was, in the main, about knowledge formulation, which led to steam mechanisation in accordance with Isaac Newton’s laws of motion.

The second industrial revolution was about knowledge evolution, which resulted in the development of electrification, mass production, in accordance with electromagnetism as postulated by Michael Faraday and James Maxwell.

The third industrial revolution was about distribution; that is transistors based on semiconductors, hence we experienced the internet, among other innovations, as articulated by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley.

The 4IR is about knowledge mutation; artificial intelligence as promoted by Alan Turing. This refers to cyber-physical systemisation, artificial cognition, robotisation and many more.

The overarching thread that runs through all this is that, while the industrial revolution has been on the move in different epochs, South Africans were excluded and became bystanders in all its phases. Let me illustrate from my personal experiences.

I joined the mining industry in the 1970s as a gold mineworker in Welkom in the Free State. At the time, local lads had no interest in working in the mines, because mining was associated with danger and backwardness. It was even difficult to get a girlfriend at the time as a mineworker. In those days the South African mining industry employed more than 800 000 workers, with few operating mines. In the Free State alone there were more than 250 000 workers. A few years later some of the mines were closed and others became modern mines with fewer employees.

Recalling my experiences of the 1970s, it was seriously hard labour. I worked deep down in the belly of the earth for nine years, in a searing temperature of not less than 45°C. Fast forward to this year and the mining industry employs about 400 000 workers with more mines but on a smaller scale. Copies of the Modern Mining Magazine I receive every month reflect on measures taken by the producers in the employment of innovations in different levels. The safety improvement includes the introduction of the technology of proximity detection system (PDS), which measures productivity improvement and mining efficiencies.

The point I’m building up to for discussion is: Is the fourth industrial revolution, innovation and technology an opportunity for all of us or is it a curse for labour and future job seekers?

In my previous experiences, I learnt that one must never complain about things you can change and those things you can’t change. I remember development consultant Dr John Tibane saying: “If you don’t manage change, change will mismanage you.”

With regard to the 4IR, there seem to be two schools of thought. There are those who say this is a commercial ploy to promote business interests, sometimes by cutting jobs, introducing convenient alternatives to workers and increasing profits.

Another school of thought is that we should participate and influence the direction of the 4IR, because that can address our socioeconomic challenges.

Although the wheels of the 4IR are moving inexorably, I’m of the view that key stakeholders are not ready to board this fast-moving train of knowledge mutation. I have seen situations in which companies get angry after a strike and therefore resolve to mechanise. Anger has never produced a sustainable solution.

It is not good enough to say we don’t want this and that; this is the time of creativity and innovation. There is a need for labour to reposition itself and confront reality by addressing the key concerns of our economy – job creation on a sustainable basis. The reality on the ground is that we are seeing massive job losses in a number of sectors, not only mining.

The 4IR is here to stay. I never asked for the introduction of my cellphone but today the first thing you touch when you wake up is not your partner but your gadget.

The reality is that no worker enjoys hard labour. Even prisoners hate hard labour. As a former gold mineworker, if there were any safe methods of doing work with less physical labour then I would have opted for that voluntarily. The protective equipment is uncomfortable and yet you need it for your own safety.

The reality on the ground calls for a serious conversation with key stakeholders on the matter of the 4IR and the future of work. In one meeting a comrade once said: “This fourth industrial revolution is a white monopoly capital tool to take away our economic rights.” It was then I realised the reality on the ground is that we are not addressing real issues but casting doubts so as not to focus on real issues.

I’m concerned that short-term and populist approaches do not take away the facts and the reality that is unfolding. If a choice is made of putting your head in the sand, it doesn’t mean there will be no movement without you.

What is to be done?

Never before has it become so compelling for organised labour to stand up with one voice and participate in shaping the 4IR. Non-participation could lead to labour concluding that the 4IR is a curse and not an opportunity. The participation should be twofold: the first being acquisition of knowledge on the subject matter and, second, the formulation of informed views that will create opportunities for all engaged in the 4IR debate and action.

I’m of the view that the 4IR can be channelled into resolving some of our challenges in health, education and unemployment. One of the biggest challenges in our country is road accidents. We can make use of technology and innovation to eliminate fatalities on our roads. In the mining industry the mineral resources department, as a regulator, introduced the proximity detection system I referred to earlier. This PDS will prevent many accidents and save the lives of many mine workers.

It is an undisputed fact that other industrial revolutions passed us by. There’s now no excuse for us to continue to be spectators in the big industrial revolution. The University of Johannesburg has created a platform for all of us to participate and be partners in the journey of the 4IR. Our education system must be repositioned to equip workers and entrants into the workplace. The entrepreneurs and the rest of society should explore fully how to benefit in this journey. Now is the time for us to be actors or drivers in our economic development and other spheres of our life.

Our participation should lead to indigenisation of the 4IR and, as we do so, it must have an African character. Amandla!

- Baleni is a member of the University of Johannesburg Council and a former general secretary of the Union of Mineworkers

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