Photo: Reuters
CAPE TOWN - The World Economic Forum on Africa’s (WEF) focus on growth and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the most important initiative for Africa in 50 years, possibly longer, says Sandile Hlophe, Africa Region Government & Public Sector Leader and Ernst & Young (EY) partner.

Speaking ahead of the conference in Cape Town, he said prioritising 4IR could enable South Africa to make a “giant” economic leap forward, as the digital revolution “is the most fundamental transformation we are likely to experience in our lifetime.”

For South Africa, the presence of world economic and business leaders and heads of state present a rare opportunity for South Africa to promote itself and advance its aims of growing the economy, and to showcase some of the local advances being made on 4IR.

Topics that will come up for discussion include the future of South Africa’s state-owned companies, infrastructure, universal health coverage, climate change and the digital economy. The meeting will be the first that the WEF has held in sub-Saharan Africa since 2017.

The opportunity has not been lost on the government and President Cyril Ramaphosa will lead a government delegation of more than 10 ministers, including from the Cabinet, Deputy President David Mabuza, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.

“Now more than ever, South Africa needs to create opportunities that will empower young people. At the same time, the forum allows South Africa to showcase the programmes we have put in place and actions to reduce poverty, unemployment and inequality,” Ramaphosa said in a statement from his office on Friday.

South Africa will also learn from countries that have excelled in using technology and the 4IR to advance their economies. The delegation would also seek to further the African development agenda, Ramaphosa added.

“We need to quickly embrace it (4IR) or be left behind. This is particularly important to South Africa’s lacklustre economy,” said Hlophe.

Theo Sibiya, WEF Regional Business Council co-chairperson and managing partner for Africa at AT Kearney, said the plans to grow Africa were in place and “we know what we need to do. The challenge right now is execution.”

“If we come out of these three days with a feeling that things are moving and seeing how things are going to be delivered and how people are going to be held accountable for delivery, and it is more than just a talk shop, then I would describe the event as having been a success,” said Sibiya.

“Africa’s successful development depends on building the right conditions for its new generation of entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders,” said Elsie Kanza, WEF executive committee member and head of the Regional Agenda, Africa.

“This means smart, agile institutions; an enabling environment for innovation that includes access to skills and capital; and a determined approach by policy-makers to level the playing field and implement policies that prioritise sustainable, inclusive growth over short-term imperatives,” she said.

Taru Madangombe, vice-president of Power Systems, the Anglophone cluster for Schneider Electric, said: “If you are not digital it will be very difficult to be competitive in industry, or in the buildings you produce. Because what you are building is here for the next 50 years, and it has to be green, smart and automated.”

One of many topics to be covered at the event are “smart cities” convened to find solutions being created by the massive influx of people into cities the world over, and in South Africa.

Africa is urbanising faster than any other continent at 4percent a year.

“Today’s cities cover only 2percent of the planet’s surface, but hold 50percent of the world’s population. They also generate 80 percent of the global CO2 emissions and consume 75percent of the energy. Urbanisation in South Africa is advancing at much the same pace,” said Madangombe.

“The key technologies powering Industry 4IR, artificial intelligence (AI), mixed reality (AR & VR) and the internet of things are reshaping business processes, unlocking opportunities and encouraging new business partnerships,” he added.

Wildu du Plessis, a partner and head of Baker McKenzie’s Banking & Finance Practice Group in Johannesburg, said key to African economies making the most of their opportunities and to streamline cross border trade is the development of infrastructure.

“In many jurisdictions across the continent, new laws are being implemented and alternative sources of infrastructure funding are being sought in order to kick-start direly needed infrastructure projects,” she said.

Hlophe said the South African government had repeatedly signalled its intention to embrace all things 4IR, but the key enablers of the digital economy are business and government, which need to work together to make it a reality for the country.