The Fourth Industrial Revolution will wreak havoc on most of South Africa’s population if we do not deal with our education system and upskilling workers, a report from the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) warns.

We should not steer ourselves toward a situation that pegs people against robots, automated systems, and machines that learn, but rather one that works toward people working with new technologies.

Titled “Futures of Work in South Africa”, researchers say there are various scenarios the country can adopt relating to the digital economy. But no matter which one comes to fruition, there are critical elements that need to be acknowledged and others that have to change. The research released in March also cautions that the country cannot stay on its current trajectory. “If we continue on our current path, South Africa’s economy and her people may suffer greatly,” it warns.

“We are in a position to gain from a demographic dividend, but only if our working age the population has the appropriate skills. The reality is that we are competing against international providers that have access to low-cost, productive labour and locally, our people will increasingly compete against robots, automated systems, and machines that learn and are able to perform the same activities with higher efficiency and at a lower cost.”

These concerns are justified. Job losses resulting from technology are already a reality in the country. Also, unions, businesses and the government have mostly not been proactive in addressing the future of work and its consequences. While in the last couple of months there
has been more of a collective effort to deal with the impact of 4IR on South Africa’s economy and its people, these endeavours need to be accelerated.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) also warns that as tech giants develop meaningful artificial intelligence tools, millions or even billions of people will be left jobless. WEF founder Klaus Schwab says leaders and regulators need to act now to ensure 4IR technologies help create more opportunities instead of growing the global inequality gap. The research agrees that leaders on all levels of society should engage with their people to
facilitate understanding, and share knowledge and insights about emerging opportunities and potential threats.

This stance is also aligned with the three pillars of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Global Commission on the Future of Work Report that for 4IR to have its maximum benefit, it cannot happen without investing in the capabilities of people, in the institutions of the world of work, and decent, sustainable work. The report says that for South Africa to take advantage of 4IR, education needs a total “facelift”.

“The entire education environment, from pre-school to post-graduate education, needs to be re-imagined and aligned with emerging skills requirements. Life-long learning must become an imperative; not simply a ‘nice-to-have’” it reads.

“We should not steer ourselves toward a situation that pegs people against robots, automated systems, and machines that learn, but rather one that works toward people working with new technologies.”

It says other non-negotiable truths are that:

  • The 4IR is a given
  • Production can happen without people. This implies the potential substitutability of smart robots and artificial intelligence for human beings in the labour force in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy
  • Economic growth is not the panacea to job creation
  • The growing democratisation of the workplace presents the firm possibility that full- time employment contracts might, in some instances, give way to less formal, gig- economy workplace agreements.

The researchers say these facts mean that in the event of inappropriate skills and entitlement, the labour landscape will be very unfavourable for most workers in South Africa, and they are at risk of being replaced by robots, automated systems and machines that learn.

“That said, we do have a young population creating the opportunity for a demographic dividend which will probably only be fully exploited in the event of appropriate skills development and a growing sense of empowerment. In this kind of scenario, labour is augmented by 4IR… and increased production creates more jobs,” the document reads.

While in the short term, a number of jobs may be destroyed; in the longer run, however, new job families are likely to be created, it says. This is a typical manifestation of the process of creative destruction. The report says to escape what it terms the “dead-end” scenario (where the country stays on
its current path) and achieve its “accomplished game changers” scenario (to empower South Africans), is a total re-haul of the education, training and skilling system.

But all stakeholders will have to come to the party, including Nedlac which comprises government, labour, civil society and business. The researchers say Nedlac should play a leading, coordinating, orchestrating, integrating role in engaging all relevant stakeholders, and a social labour market compact should be facilitated. This is in line with one of the objectives of the 4IRSA initiative, to help get strategic partners onto the same page on how the country embraces 4IR.

“The trade-off between efficiency and equity should be taken into account; decision-makers should explore the trade-offs and design policies and procedures that both acknowledge that trade-offs exist and reward efforts to mitigate job losses, reduce poverty and narrow income inequality,” they say.

While the researchers are on point on coordination and adopting a social labour compact, a key concern, however, is that up until now the informal economy, the township economy and the unemployed are largely being ignored by established organisations and unions.

As an example, already in South Africa, there are a number of tech initiatives in townships that have seen a rise in small businesses. But the lack of support from established financial institutions and those who can pass on skills and knowledge, means the opportunity for SMEs to grow, is stymied. Workshops held by the 4IRSA partnership have recognised that it
is critical for economic growth and job creation that this picture changes and discussions are ongoing on how to implement the necessary transformation.

The researchers say that Nedlac could be instrumental in ensuring more investment towards digital infrastructure. Not only will this help to close the digital divide, but it will also contribute towards sharpened digital fluency. They suggest further research on issues other than skills that influence access to economic opportunities in the country, including gender, age, geographic location, and vulnerability. Also, additional research is needed on the future of worker representation, collective
bargaining and the role of trade unions.

They agree with President Cyril Ramaphosa during his address at the launch of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work Report: “… we are optimistic that with the right approach, an approach that is proactive and inclusive, we can achieve what we set out to”. The researchers are Prof André Roux, who heads up the Futures Studies Programmes at the University of Stellenbosch’s Business School, Institute for Futures Research (IFR) Senior Futurist Doris Viljoen, and IFR Research Associate Deidre Samson.

By: Amy Musgrave