The summit was opened by Gauteng Premier David Makhura, who welcomed delegates to the future, saying South Africa’s response to the digital revolution must be integrated and comprehensive, and involve all stakeholders.

Wits Vice-Chancellor Prof. Adam Habib, who’s university is a founding partner of 4IRSA, explained the genesis and objectives of 4IRSA and the summit. He said that while 4IR is primarily about technology, the end goal of 4IRSA is to help ensure that South Africa uses the digital economy to help create a more inclusive, fair and just society.

Huawei senior executive Tao Jingwen spoke on the technological underpinnings of the digital revolution. He said cloud computing, artificial intelligence and 5G would help advance South Africa, and this could be done without increasing unemployment levels if the workforce was upskilled.

In his keynote, George Friedman threw the cat among the pigeons when he questioned how ready the country was for the digital economy. He said that instead of trying to skip the phases that developed economies such as China, Japan and the US had undergone, South Africa needed to place far more emphasis on a low-wage export-led growth path. This meant developing industries needed to absorb low and unskilled labour to deal with mass unemployment.

“Those countries were in far worse shape than South Africa is in… South Africa could capitalise on building companies that made inserts for shoes, linings for coats or that assembled cell phones. It has the opportunity to globally monetise such industries to boost the economy. [South Africa] needs to monetise low-wage opportunities in a world market that is hungry for low-priced goods,” he said.

He believes that by developing industries to absorb low and unskilled labour, South Africa will be more attractive to the export market.

Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said the summit was critical because for the first time, guided by research from universities and other institutions, South Africa was developing a coherent national action plan to galvanise industry, labour, academia, the public sector and society at large.

An upbeat President Cyril Ramaphosa opened his speech by joking that he found comfort that 4IR had not reached the stage where a physical president was rendered obsolete, referring to his holographic projection in Rustenburg.

He commended 4IRSA for the “exceptional work” that has laid the foundation for a deeper national dialogue on the country’s digital future.

“In years to come we will reflect on this summit as having enabled us to reimagine South Africa and for setting us on a path of inclusive and shared growth and development.”