Deputy president trips over 4IR hype

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 24 Oct 2019
Deputy president David Mabuza. (Photo: GCIS)
Deputy president David Mabuza. (Photo: GCIS)

It was only a matter of time before one of the country’s leaders mumbled their way through in an attempt to define the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), say analysts.

This week, deputy president David Mabuza was stumped, while answering questions in Parliament, when asked to give a clear explanation of past revolutions and how the advent of 4IR will impact SA.

Since taking office in 2018, president Cyril Ramaphosa and his administration have dedicated attention to all things Industry 4.0.

Ramaphosa even spearheaded the establishment of the Presidential 4IR Commission, which is mandated to advise government on 4IR policies, develop a framework for implementation of a multi-sectoral 4IR strategy, and coordinate, monitor and evaluate multi-sectorial initiatives that will position SA as a globally competitive player in 4IR.

However, judging by the deputy president’s utterances this week, it appears not all members of the executive are well-versed to delve deeply into what this fourth industrial revolution means.

Moira de Roche, IITPSA non-executive director and IP3 chairperson, believes the overall problem is that it’s all just noise but not a lot of understanding.

“The focus is too much on the technologies and not enough about the power of ultra-connectivity, and cyber-physical systems. The reality is that growth in 4IR is exponential not linear, so the further we fall behind, the harder it will be to catch up.”

Certainty prevails

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck says it was inevitable that our leaders would trip over the definitions of 4IR when they first began trotting out the phrase.

Goldstuck elaborates: “In almost every public pronouncement on the topic, it has been clear that it is being used as a catchphrase that is vaguely synonymous with innovation. Ironically, even the media that criticise government for delivering hype rather than insight are applying definitions that are limited to one or two of the emerging technologies that underpin 4IR.”

Thecla Mbongue, senior research analyst for Middle East and Africa at Ovum, says for once, she doesn’t blame them too much.

“Technology is moving very fast and as busy as they are, it is often difficult for them to keep up with the most recent developments. On the other hand, a lot of them still have a mentality of old scholars, whereby what they consider important is topics about which lengthy documents have been written and validated by scholars.”

4IR education

To get a clear understanding of 4IR, De Roche is of the view the Presidential 4IR Commission can play an educational role rather than meeting and talking about 4IR abstractedly. 

“I think – judging by Mabuza’s comments – that government officials think they don’t have to worry about 4IR, because that’s the commission’s job.

“[Stella] Ndabeni-Abrahams is positive that it won’t cost jobs. It shouldn’t if there is a real effort to reskill people whose jobs are targets for automation.

“I think our leaders need to study the effects of 4IR around the world, and understand the opportunity as well as the risk. They need a great deal of education themselves. They should be listening to talks on 4IR, not giving them.

From a World Wide Worx perspective, Goldstuck says the answer is obvious, in that government should pay attention to work being done in the space, so that it can provide informed leadership.

“We've been researching the emerging technologies underlying 4IR for some years now, and earlier this year, released a study titled ‘The 4th Industrial Revolution in South Africa 2019’. There has been no interest in it whatsoever from government. This tells us that our leaders love to talk but, when it comes to listening, not so much.”

Mbongue cites constant training and updates as essential to keep up the fast-evolving digital environment, noting this should apply to any new trend or name that emerges, even if they are just buzz.

“Such task should be assigned to their admin support team or to an entire new digital team, which main task would be to keep track of new trends in South Africa and globally, and  keep their leaders updated.”

Meanwhile, the South African government news agency reports that while in Parliament, Mabuza revealed the state is developing comprehensive responses to 4IR through the presidential commission.

Mabuza is said to have made these comments in response to what steps he has taken to lead the process to ensure technology is at the forefront of taking trade into the 4IR in the context of the recently signed African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement.

According to Mabuza, while the scope of the Free Trade Agreement does not include technology and digital trade in specific terms, the African Union is currently undertaking parallel initiatives on the development of an African Digital Trade and Digital Economy Development Strategy through the Specialised Technical Committee on Trade, Industry and Mineral Resources.

“For its part, South Africa is developing a comprehensive response to the digital trade and the fourth industrial revolution through the president’s advisory commission on the fourth industrial revolution.

“The emerging issues from these processes as far as initiatives around the fourth industrial revolution is concerned, should bring into sharper focus how as African countries we engage meaningfully in technical cooperation across various sectors of development.” he said.

Government set up a Presidential 4IR Commission to advise on 4IR policies.
Government set up a Presidential 4IR Commission to advise on 4IR policies.