South Africans are worried about losing their jobs to automation, and many are uncomfortable with the benefits and modernisation of technology and artificial intelligence (AI), according to a survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

Most young South Africans believe 4IR will have a negative impact on
their job security

The survey, which measures public attitudes to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), has also found that while South Africans are “cautiously upbeat’ about the digital economy, between 40% and 50% of respondents lack a basic knowledge of new technologies.

A total of 2763 people – older than 16 – living in private residences participated in the survey. The HSRC, which is expected to release a fuller examination of the results next month, conducted the research to time it with South Africa’s recent Digital Economy Summit hosted by 4IRSA. A report from the conference will be handed over to the Presidential Commission on 4IR to help it, amongst others, start identifying what kind of interventions are needed to lessen the human costs of developments as a result of the 4IR.


The South African Social Attitudes Survey, which was conducted by doctoral researchers at the HSRC, finds that 73% of South African adults believe that in in the next 10 years, machines or computer programmes will assume many of the jobs currently done by humans. Six out of 10 employees are worried that automation will threaten their job security.

While South Africans exhibit an almost equivalent view to Britons on the impact on the labour market when compared to the results of a 2017 British Societal Attitudes Survey, the levels of concern on the impact of automation on personal jobs is much higher than people living in the UK. Those especially anxious are the youth.

“South African workers aged 55 years and below all show higher levels of worry than older age groups (61-70% vs. 46-49%), with the highest reported level of concern evident again among those aged 16-25 years. It is interesting to note that the lower worry among workers in the oldest age groups is due in part to a higher level of uncertainty about the job impact of
automation and not exclusively due to lack of concern,” the HSRC says.

The findings are in line with concerns voiced daily about the country’s ability to adapt education and skills to the 4IR, especially amongst youngsters. While there has been movement to get pupils and students ready for the digital economy, such as introducing coding as a subject at more schools, many believe that South Africa has taken too long to
get young people from all backgrounds digitally savvy.

Concerns about technologies replacing humans are compounded by the fact that 57% of respondents are doubtful that the government has effective strategies to ensure there are no job losses. The HSRC says poorer South Africans tend to be more sceptical than those who are better off. While the results do not address the roles of other stakeholders such as business, the council believes they do nonetheless provide a view by the public on the
state’s current policies.


The council also asked South Africans to self-evaluate their general level of knowledge of new technologies and scientific advances that are occurring. A total of 58% expressed moderate to high levels of knowledge, while 39% said they lacked or had a circumscribed understanding of such matters. To further assess levels of knowledge, respondents were asked about their levels of familiarity with social media platforms, AI and driverless cars. 
While half said they knew enough about social media to explain it conceptually to someone else, less than a third could do so on AI and driverless cars.

The respondents were also engaged on whether they believe they are proficient in their use of computers and Internet technologies in their daily lives and at work. A total of 59% felt that they possessed adequate skills levels generally, while 51% of those employed regarded their ICT proficiency to be of a suitable for their jobs. Despite these figures, the HSRC says citizens are generally upbeat about the broader impact of the 4IR.

“In terms of the envisaged impact that recent computer and Internet technologies currently have on the economy, society and personal wellbeing, South Africans could be considered cautiously optimistic. Around half of South African (48-52%) believe that such technological
advances are beneficial in economically, societally and personally, whereas approximately a fifth express reservations,” it says.

There is also a limited level of comfort with robots performing a range of tasks. Less than a fifth of the respondents are comfortable with a robot performing a medical procedure, driving them in a driverless car or taxi in traffic, or having a drone deliver goods. The council says this indicates a low level of acceptance of the application of robots in specific situations.


The HSRC says if technological change creates further polarisation and inequality in the labour market and sustained unemployment, then carefully planned social and labour market policies are required to address low pay, precarious employment, and expanded long-term unemployment.

“At this stage though, the public is fairly pessimistic about the ability of government to minimise the human costs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. An on-going multi-sectoral dialogue will clearly be required to promote new insights and develop actions and responses…,” it says.

These actions will need to be backed up with effective communication campaigns to inform the public about technological change and the planned response for the country.

By: Amy Musgrave