Ndabeni-Abrahams urges tech players to put people before profits

Speaking at the Uber Tech4Safety Summit, the minister was big on enthusiasm but weak on details, mainly assuring the audience that the government was committed to creating an environment for 4IR.
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Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, minister of communications and digital technologies.
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, minister of communications and digital technologies.

In a speech strong on rallying cries to the IT industry, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has urged technology players to put people before profits.

As the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) takes hold, the private sector must train people for jobs of the future and make an effort to ensure everyone is included, she said.

Speaking at the Uber Tech4Safety Summit, the minister was big on enthusiasm but weak on details, mainly assuring the audience that the government was committed to creating policies that would give the private sector an environment where it could flourish.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said she called herself the commander of the 4IR. “If a revolution is to be successful there has to be a commander and we have to know who is doing what and where, and how they can work with us so we can deliver meaningfully,” she said.

She also dubbed herself the minister people will hate, because it’s her job to ease in technologies that will put people out of work. “People are scared that technology is going to replace them. I am the minister you have to hate because I have to encourage you to use things like artificial intelligence that some people see as a threat.”

The minister admitted that historically the ANC had not done much in terms of investing in skills, but she implied that the government was putting more focus on that now through initiatives like a plan to create a million IT-savvy graduates by 2030.

Future legislation will be influenced by the President’s Commission on 4IR, which is looking at issues including human capacity development, investment and infrastructure. The commission brings together individuals from different backgrounds with different expertise, “because with 4IR nobody knows it all. We have never lived it,” the minister said.

In practical terms, the government would get behind skills development and create an enabling environment so that the companies able to usher in these new technologies could operate efficiently.

The government must ensure that entrepreneurs and developers could work well in South Africa because legislation supported them and people were willing to invest in them, she said.

“As government, we will be working towards developing big data policies and the establishment of a special economic zone which will bring together the private sector and innovators and funders. We want to create an environment that supports the processes from ideation to funding to prototypes so you don't have to go to Silicon Valley.”

Companies must play their part by not only aiming to make profits, but to put people first, she said. 

“How can you invest in your people to upskill them so they don’t miss out? Let’s make sure everybody is ready to participate meaningfully in 4IR. It must not come here as a threat. We have to make people understand that yes, certain jobs will be lost, but new jobs will be created.”

Handled properly, Africa could actually benefit from this fourth industrial revolution, and not miss out as it had with the previous three, she said.

“We as government must be responsive to your needs and support your innovations. There are casualties in any revolution, but we want to work with you and make sure we reduce the number of casualties and make sure people in this country become effective players in the economy.”

Connecting South Africa’s still unconnected 20 million citizens remained a big challenge, because neglecting that would leave them even further behind, the minister said. “It relies on good policies that are implementable, and practical interventions that make sure people are not just spectators to the economy we are trying to create.”

The Tech4Safety summit on Friday saw IT experts in Johannesburg discuss ways to improve the safety of Uber users and drivers, and to improve road safety in general.

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