Fear, resistance, skills shortages threaten SA’s 4IR progress

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The technical skills 4IR needs are some of the scarcest skills in SA.
The technical skills 4IR needs are some of the scarcest skills in SA.

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) presents a wealth of opportunities for SA, but factors such as a lack of high-end skills and widespread fear of job losses could hamper progress.

This is according to ICT stakeholders and finalists in the 2019 Institute for Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) President’s Awards.

Speaking ahead of the awards presentation set for 27 November, the finalists say the 4IR could create new jobs and business opportunities.

However, they say seizing the opportunities would require new approaches to education and workplace skills development.

Visionary CIO Award finalist and PPS CTO Avsharn Bachoo notes the 4IR is not a once-off event, or a one-size-fits-all fix.

“It’s a social transformation process sustained over time involving diverse stakeholders. 4IR has to connect the global digital revolution to SA’s specific socio-economic priorities.”

He believes this has to be driven by partnerships across government, business and ordinary South Africans through leadership, innovation and learning.

“Very importantly, 4IR technologies like robotics, AI [artificial intelligence] and IOT [Internet of things] are interdependent. In order for them to thrive, 4IR needs an ecosystem of technical infrastructure like fibre, system development skills, local ICT support as well as cyber governance and regulatory frameworks,” says Bachoo.

Derek Wilcocks, group CIO of Discovery and Visionary CIO award finalist.
Derek Wilcocks, group CIO of Discovery and Visionary CIO award finalist.

Skills shortages

Professor Jean Greyling, associate professor in the Department of Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela University and finalist in the IT Personality Award and Social Responsibility/Community Award categories, says skills will be SA’s biggest 4IR challenge.

“The technical skills 4IR needs are some of the scarcest skills in SA. This is made worse by the fact that more than half of our schools do not have computer labs, and it is estimated it will, on average, cost R1 million to equip each school with an Internet-connected lab.”

Even if schools have the technology, Greyling says there is a huge shortage of teachers equipped to teach subjects like robotics and programming, as well as a shortage of teachers and staff with the skills needed to maintain laboratories.

“All this 4IR talk by government is causing anxiety among learners, teachers, principals and parents from the mainly disadvantaged communities, since they have a sense of missing out.”

Frans Kalp, CEO of Ligbron e-Learning Systems and finalist in the Technology Excellence Award and Social Responsibility/Community Award categories, agrees.

“I am seeing major disruptions in the South African education system as a whole and especially higher education. To name one, I can see a huge shift from traditional teaching to more online teaching by using video-conferencing for online schools and universities. More students will be able to study from home by visiting online classes,” he says.

Visionary CIO Award finalist and PPS CTO, Avsharn Bachoo.
Visionary CIO Award finalist and PPS CTO, Avsharn Bachoo.

Fear and resistance

Rumbidzaishe Maisva, head of STEM at Womandla Foundation and Social Responsibility/Community Award finalist, notes: “One key change to the 4IR is that there looks to be a possibility of many people losing jobs as those jobs become automated.

“Thus, the single biggest challenge for the fourth industrial revolution for South Africa is resistance – resistance to embracing the 4IR, resistance to the idea that the disruptive technologies bring about major changes whose effect is not clearly known at this point and resistance to the idea of acquiring new skill sets.”

Maisva says unfortunately, this poses such a major challenge because ignoring the new technologies and hoping they go away would only adversely affect the South African economy and set back SA from taking the lead in the global market.

Derek Wilcocks, group CIO of Discovery and Visionary CIO award finalist, says the single biggest 4IR challenge SA faces is co-ordinating resources behind a few big opportunities that create the most leverage in creating new jobs.

“The single biggest 4IR opportunity is aligning 4IR technologies with industries that can create new jobs. These include 4IR opportunities that create job markets, and match buyers and sellers in tourism, agriculture and business process outsourcing,” Wilcocks says.

Bachoo adds the 4IR has become an engine of growth and can open major opportunities for transformational change in SA.

“For me, the exploitation of data underpins 4IR and is the single biggest opportunity for SA. Data opens up new opportunities for convergence by taking advantage of the new markets offered by digital platforms and exploiting production possibilities enabled by digital technologies.”

However, he points out that fostering an ecosystem that supports 4IR development requires strong IT leadership across all sector levels to plan and implement 4IR transformation strategies.

“This leadership is important to communicate a 4IR vision, mobilise long-term commitment, integrate ICT opportunities and investments into strategies, align complementary policies, harness skills, and pursue partnerships with the private and public sector,” he says.

Major opportunity

Maisva believes the 4IR provides a major opportunity for the South African economy to level up with first world countries.

“A barrier like geolocation would no longer be a limiting factor for SA to tap into the global economy. One of the most significant factors attributed to the development of first world countries has been technology.

“The fourth industrial revolution has brought with it disruptive technologies which are ‘disruptive’ to the economic, political and social environments.”

She believes these disruptive technologies, if harnessed efficiently, could result in positive major impact.

“South Africa would be able to compete in providing services in a way that allows them to gain market share. Furthermore, the skillset of people in South Africa can be grown to improve the social economy.”

Technology Excellence Award finalist Marnus van Heerden, co-founder of decentralised insurer Pineapple, echoes this view, saying: “There is a significant opportunity for SA to build excellent technology products for global partners.”

Taki Netshitenzhe, chief officer corporate affairs, chairperson of the Vodacom Foundation and finalist in the Social Responsibility/Community Award category, says the skills challenge has to be addressed.

However, she says: “Well-managed, the 4IR has the potential to improve the quality of life for the world’s population and SA to remain competitive in the global economy.

“There are immense opportunities for SA to leapfrog and address all societal challenges in various industry verticals that support service delivery and the sustainable development goals, such as education, health, transport, asset management, municipal services.”

The impact of the 4IR and the wave of innovation in the ICT sector will be a focus at this year’s IITPSA President’s Awards, to be staged under the theme NE><T.

IITPSA CEO Tony Parry says the theme celebrates the changing ICT landscape and the mass arrival of a wave of Generation Z ICT professionals in the workplace. He notes the 2019 finalists are prime examples of the excellence, ethics and innovation that will be needed in the 4IR.

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