South Africa’s growing youth bulge, which has been described by some as a demographic timebomb due to poor education and skills training, has been of critical concern for years.

While there is growing recognition, including from the government, that South Africa’s education system needs an overhaul, the fact is the country cannot wait for this to happen before it starts taking other decisive steps to drastically decrease the youth unemployment rate, which stands above 50%.

Without the right skills and education, the country’s socioeconomic goals will be almost impossible to attain. Those who are entering our workforce and are the future leaders cannot help the country out of its economic slump, nor share the fruits of their labour without the right tools. While there is growing recognition, including from the government, that South Africa’s education system needs an overhaul, the fact is the country cannot wait for this to happen before it starts taking other decisive steps to drastically decrease the youth unemployment rate, which stands above 50%.

The digital revolution – otherwise known as 4IR – has been identified by policymakers, researchers, global forums and the youth as one way to get youngsters ready for the future world of work. The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that currently do not exist. To prepare pupils for these changes, the Basic Education Department has trained nearly 44,000 teachers in computer skills. In addition, the University of South Africa has partnered with the department by making its 24 ICT laboratories across the country available to train teachers in coding. From next year, coding as a subject will be piloted in 1000 schools. It is already being offered at some private schools.

Google and Teen Geeks are also supporting the department to develop a coding platform that uses Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to customise teaching and learning. This is meant to help ensure that where teachers do not have the skills, technology will aid them. Another addition to the school curriculum will be the introduction of robotics.
Its aim is to encourage pupils to start experimenting, building and inventing. Other technology subjects will include aquaponics, aviation studies, technical sciences, maritime sciences, technical math, technical sciences, and mining sciences.

While the changes to the school curriculum will go a long way in getting the country on par with other developing economies and leapfrogging where possible, one of the main worries is how scholars are taught. While President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his State of the Nation Address this year that every child must be able to read, what is sorely lacking in critical thinking skills developed at a young age.
A visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg, Kerry J Kennedy, whose focuses include curriculum policy and theory, and classroom assessment, agrees that comprehension is paramount.

In an article published in the Daily Maverick, he argues that questions around 4IR are about what it means to be human. This question needs to be answered at school level already pupils need to understand what is happening in the world around them, how it is happening and why it is happening. So social sciences, arts, humanities,
and philosophy is just as important as technology.

“Schools… have an important role in preparing students for 4IR. The key skills and values are creativity, critical thinking and problem solving – these have been widely endorsed and there should be nothing in the school curriculum that does not facilitate these skills and values,” he says.

“For example, many people advocate computer coding as a component of the 4IR curriculum, but this misses the point. If computer coding leads to innovative, creative and critical thinking then it has a role to play, if it is about the routine application of rules then it does not. A robot can apply rules – computer coding must contain elements that use human skills as well as technical skills.”

Along with these skills and values, Kennedy believes the curriculum must teach students what it means to be human in a world enveloped by tech and robots. He says many commentators point out that if a robot can do it, it’s not worth teaching.

“The message here is for politicians and policymakers. Schools must be equipped for teaching with and about 4IR… Resources are needed to transform education so they can meet the needs of 4IR. There is little to be gained from crying poor when it comes to resourcing this kind of education. Without such resources, the challenges will not be met, and this will be to the detriment of the whole of society,” he says.

At tertiary level, South African universities have embraced 4IR. These institutions, including those in the 4IRSA partnership – the Universities of Johannesburg, Fort Hare, and Witwatersrand – have also embarked on research to help guide the country on 4IR and find niche markets. In addition, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has a group of young researchers involved in developing 4IR technologies such as machine learning, robotics, and additive manufacturing. At a press briefing last month, they urged the youth to use their technological knowledge and skills as an advantage to thrive in the digital revolution.

“Nobody understands technology better than us (young people) and that is an advantage. This is the right time for youngsters to show the world that we are ready to lead. Let’s take the opportunity and make it work for us,” said 26-year-old CSIR researcher in computer vision, Windy Mokuwe.

The team is working on a number of projects and models for robotic operations. The Intelligent Workcell is one that uses state-of-the-art machine learning methods for object recognition and autonomous pick and place, using a robotic manipulator arm. They are also developing the ability for a robot to learn to perform new action sequences that it gets through demonstration. Autonomous 3D Navigation – a robot system that can move between indoor and outdoor environments and navigate autonomously in either, without assistance from GPS – has also been developed. The robot performs autonomous exploration and mapping of its environment and transmits the information wirelessly to a remote operator console.

CSIR master’s student in robotics, Nomfundiso Khuma, 26, told reporters that robots should be viewed in the context of improving the quality of life.  
“Young people will be required to work in many areas and work as technicians, programmers, robot operators, among others, as well as build these robots.” This sentiment that youngsters should lead the way is shared by Ramaphosa and Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

“At the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is a people-centered response that speaks to jobs, skills and broad economic participation. The onus is therefore upon young people… to take heed of the vast opportunities presented by this revolution to ensure that you are active economic participants in the digital era.”

Last week the minister attended a tech open day at the Vaal University of Technology in Sebokeng in Gauteng. As a build-up to the inaugural Digital Economy Summit, it saw over 500 university students and young people from the township get the first-hand experience of technological innovations from industry players and public institutions such as the Vaal University of Technology, CISCO, the National Electronic Media Institute of SA (NEMISA), TAM Gaming and Huawei.

She told the gathering that through a partnership with the Media and ICT SETA (MICT-Seta), 1000 young people are being trained on Data Science, Digital Content Production, 3D Printing, Cybersecurity, Drone Piloting, Software Development, and Cloud Computing. South Africa possibly stands on the cusp of a leap in development, because of its young population. But for a young population to be a blessing instead of a threat, there must be
plenty of economic opportunities that deliver jobs and entrepreneurial chances. And for that to happen, education and skills must match the emerging needs of 4IR.

By: Amy Musgrave