Covid-19 is accelerating 4IR - but SA may not be ready

Can SA be 4IR-fit given its economic and social disparities?
Photo: Getty Images
Can SA be 4IR-fit given its economic and social disparities? Photo: Getty Images
  • Government plans to spend billions of rands into digital infrastructure to provide universal internet access as more people work and study from home.
  • But while more South Africans are working remotely, academics say only certain industries, like the services sector, enjoy that luxury.
  • They say SA's economic and social disparities could leave many behind if the country tries to be 4IR-fit at all cost.
  • SA needs to face the reality that not every working adult will possess 4IR skills.

Banks and insurers say the majority of their employees aren't going back to their headquarters. Private and suburbia schools have transitioned to online learning for most of their grades and more people can perform government-related transactions online, thanks to the zero-rating of more essential websites.

Covid-19 has accelerated the digitisation of the South African economy, but does this mean the country is now ready to fully embrace the Fourth Industrial Innovation (4IR)?

According to innovative education provider iXperience, since last year enrolment to its data science course has increased substantially and it has been the most-in-demand skill during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic, especially the move towards virtual meetings, may have opened many people's eyes to the importance of 4IR skills.

"I think people recognise that data science skills are incredibly valuable, but also because data science skills can be used across industries," said iXperience CEO, Aaron Fuchs.

The government is also doing its bit.

On Monday, Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille announced that a "digital sector project", worth R4 billion, will be part of the infrastructure projects gazetted on 24 July that government wants to see implemented within the next three months.

The project entails the establishment of a national Spatial Infrastructure Hub to allow for the development of satellite infrastructure.

The government also wants to digitise documents, like medical records, police dockets and court documents, to accelerate universal internet access in the country.

The head of the Infrastructure Investment Office in the Presidency, Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, said the government wants to treat internet like other basic municipal services.

But is SA ready?

4IR is, however, more than just providing internet access or digitising services or the application of technology, points out Professor Riaan Rudman from the University of Stellenbosch.

It is about the context in which the technology is used and making sure the technology is implemented to fit SA's realities. He pointed out that, for example, services like Uber and online food deliveries might have changed the way business is conducted in suburban areas, but they still don't reach many rural and outlying areas.

"We need to think about how and when we implement which technologies. Depending on the context and need, you might need a technology solution and other times you need might need a manual or low technology solution," he said.

Rudman said SA will probably need to work on a dual economy for some time, accelerate digitisation of services for those who have good internet access and provide manual services for those who are still stuck in a cash economy, learners who cannot study online and industries that cannot deploy technologies like 3D printers.

He said before the blanket application of 4IR technologies, SA needs to facilitate a social change or else our economy will leave many more people behind, given the shortcomings in the education system and the fact that majority of the workforce is not highly skilled.

"For my undergrad students, maths skills are more important than programming skills at this stage. Communication skills are more important," said Rudman.

"Yes, SA does need people with programming skills, we need data scientists and there is demand for them in a portion of the market. But if we want small businesses to move the SA economy as a whole forward, is that what is needed currently for them?"

The danger of leaving the majority behind

Prof André Roux, the head of the Futures Studies programmes at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, said working from home and performing more transactions digitally is still not a reality for many people in this country.

He said it might be a little ambitious to expect most people to move with the digital wave and acquire 4IR skills, even though the government is "serious about this revolution".

"There is a role, no doubt, for fourth industrial revolution technologies. They are going to more and more become a part of us. We cannot escape that, but it has to be contextual," he said.

Roux said SA's "very real" education shortcoming will become more pronounced if SA tries to become 4IR-fit too quickly.

In any case, iXperience did mention that most of the students who enrol for its courses are still from abroad. But the company offers its courses at discounted rates to South Africans or for free through scholarships.

"I think there is an interest to learn these skills, but there isn't enough awareness in the country about how important they are. There need to be more opportunities in the country to learn these skills. And you need a computer to learn these skills online.

"I don't know how many people in this country that are in the right age bracket who have access to the right tools to commit to learning these skills," said Fuchs.

Roux said the skills that the country needs to focus on the most are "learning agility, adaptability, empathy and trans-disciplinary thinking".

"People often say that to be part of this revolution, you need to be able to programme. You need to be able to code and decode, etc. Well, I'm not sure about that. I don't think we should expect every single person of working age to be able to programme," said Roux.

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