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Getting 4IR off the ground

Read time 6min 20sec
Tshilidzi Marwala
Tshilidzi Marwala

It's hard to know where to start a conversation with Professor Tshilidzi Marwala.

Do you begin with his role as deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)? Or do you start with his role as vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and his efforts to ensure graduates are equipped with the skills to thrive in the digital economy? You could start by discussing the 16 books he’s written, including a book for children on artificial intelligence.

Instead, I start by asking how one man has achieved so many qualifications from so many different universities, and especially how a black kid during Apartheid managed it.

“There are things that we need to fix in South Africa. We need to fix our civil service. I think our people can work much harder and take their jobs much more seriously.”

Marwala, 48, holds qualifications from Pretoria and Johannesburg universities, Cambridge University in the UK, the University of Singapore, and Columbia and Harvard Business Schools in the US. And that’s just an abridged list.

His success is a combination of a few things, he says. “Raising a good citizen is the responsibility of parents, society and the government, and all these things fell into place. My parents were teachers who allowed me to be curious enough to ask difficult questions that maybe other people wouldn’t have had the opportunity to ask, and they allowed me to dream. That’s very important.”

He grew up in a black 'homeland' created by the Apartheid government, where the school welcomed teachers from Uganda, the Philippines and Zimbabwe who exposed the pupils to a world beyond their borders.

At 17, he spent two weeks in London at an International Youth Science Fortnight, where his career plans switched from being a doctor to focusing on technology.

Action plans

Marwala is smart, both physically and intellectually, wearing a neat suit and carrying himself with a sophisticated, refined demeanour. He talks like a man who expects you to listen, so you do. He tells some lovely stories from his student days, then our conversation diverts towards Bill Gates and Robespierre, tax and revolution.

When we get onto the subject of the 4IR Commission, he says it’s the second task he’s undertaken for a president. The first was chairing the local loop unbundling committee for President Thabo Mbeki, which I recall went absolutely nowhere. “It made its recommendations and some policy directions were given, but they were never implemented,” he agrees. That reminds him of a self-effacing story about how his comment that the local loop would be unbundled by 2011 was later lampooned in an article highlighting the worst-ever technology predictions. “That’s what I said, but it never was unbundled,” he laughs.

Given that failure, and the fact that government-led talk shops rarely seem to achieve much, I ask why he’s bothering with the 4IR Commission. “I think the president is serious about it. He chairs it himself,” he says. “But our recommendations must be simple so they are implemented. If they aren't simple, the political will becomes even more elusive.”

The 30-member commission is tasked with proposing policies, strategies and action plans to position South Africa as a competitive global player in the digital revolution. Marwala was appointed as its deputy chair due to his expertise in the application of AI in engineering, computer science, finance, social science and medicine.

The first recommendation was to establish a national AI institute to deal with its application in agriculture, manufacturing, finance, defence and security. He believes that using AI in agriculture will add a competitive advantage that will play to one of Africa's strengths.

The commission is also stressing the need to invest in human capital, which South Africa hasn't done well in the past. But he doesn't support the notion that some people have of teaching kids to code. That's the wrong model, he says, because the education system needs to deliver children with the abilities to communicate verbally, in writing and artistically, the ability to think logically, to process numbers and grasp basic mathematics, and to think computationally.

“That doesn't mean you have to understand how a computer works, but you have to understand the sort of instructions a computer understands,” he says. “You have to introduce this in schools. I'm not saying they should prescribe my AI for kids books, but it would definitely help!”

Post-work era

Since skilling people to understand AI is vital, UJ has made it a compulsory subject for all first-year students to develop their awareness of AI, its applications, and its implications for society and the future of work.

The world is already entering the ‘post-work era’ and nobody really knows how the 4IR will affect humanity once machines can do anything that humans can do, he says. “The Japanese already say it’s inhumane for people to be expected to do jobs that machines can do,” he points out.

A pessimist might think it unlikely that Africa will keep pace with this revolution, especially when bosses already complain that graduates are leaving university ill-equipped for the working world. Marwala acknowledges that our school system isn't high-class, but he’s remarkably upbeat about the quality of our universities. “I think our education system is very good for the price people pay for it. There’s nothing wrong with the education we give, it's just that some students fall by the wayside. We hear complaints that they aren't ready for the world of work when they finish their degrees, but I think they are. Our graduate students are some of the best I’ve ever encountered.”

Besides, he says, companies shouldn’t expect graduates to be workplace-ready, and nurturing creativity and the ability to think more broadly beats training someone for a specific job. “Our engineers aren’t in a position to pull cars to pieces – we've taught them how to apply science and maths, but we don't teach them to fix things. They have the skills that will allow them to grasp the concepts to do these things,” he says.

“Some of the best CEOs didn't even study the topic they oversee. Did Steve Jobs study computer science? No. Our companies could take somebody who studied literature and train them into finance. Can you imagine the type of thinking they would bring?”

Sadly, Marwala has absolutely no political ambitions, even though he'd make a charismatic and competent minister. But he knows the answers Africa needs lie in the private sector, not within its governments. “I think one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made is to think about politics every time we think about leadership. A society that functions must have leaders in the education space and the cultural space and the technology space. Thinking about leadership only within the confines of the political system is keeping us from progressing.”

This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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