The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) can and will deliver South Africa from the jobs and growth crisis in which it is mired. File Photo: African News Agency (ANA)
JOHANNESBURG - The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) can and will deliver South Africa from the jobs and growth crisis in which it is mired. That is the truism that is being widely peddled as the panacea to the triple threat of poverty, unemployment and inequality in which the country finds itself.

But what if South Africa fails to catch the wave in time? And even if it does, what if the cost is further job unemployment, inequality and poverty? Recent research shows that despite the hype around the importance of capitalising on the technological advances of our age, certain technologies that make up 4IR have yet to be adopted with any enthusiasm by South African enterprises.

The study - titled “Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa 2019: Enterprise uptake and expectations for emerging technologies” conducted by World Wide Worx in partnership with Syspro - found that only 13percent of corporate South Africa is currently using Artificial Intelligence and, of the rest, 21 percent plan to adopt it in the next 12 to 24 months.

High cost and lack of skills is a factor, according to the study.

The reality is that bold decisions and leadership and broad thinking are required - not just by the government but also by corporate South Africa - if the benefits of the 4IR are to be fully harnessed and maximised.

For this to happen, traditions, systems and beliefs that go back generations need to be confronted and challenged.

The first reality that needs to be grasped and communicated is that the divestment from labour-intensive jobs - the very foundations on which the South African economy is based - will do away with the “traditional” jobs that are a staple of South African professional life. Call centre agents, administrative and repetitive tasks and jobs that rely on manual labour will become obsolete there is no fighting it.

The government and unions need to embrace that reality and help prepare South African workers for a world where skills, not muscle, reign.

Second, quality education - an area where South Africa has foundered in the last 20 or so years - is the bedrock on which 4IR is founded. South Africa requires a lot more from its education system and teachers, and the country needs to urgently rethink its approach to educational delivery and outcomes.

Finally, the way South Africans view and do business needs to be reconsidered. Companies with rigid or semi-rigid working conditions, processes and working hours who reward employees solely through compensation packages are a thing of the past and need to give way to companies which encourage and reward, not penalise, out-of-the-box thinking and innovation.

Talk, however, is cheap and is often an allegation which can be levelled at South African authorities. Great plans are wonderful, but execution is also critical. So how can the country and business be moved from talking and planning, to action?

One potential solution is for banks - who are closing traditional branches as demand for digital banking increases - to collaborate with the government to provide crucial government services at those old branches? This creates efficiencies, increases productivity and stimulates the economy - while getting rid of a major headache for anyone who has had to queue all morning to renew their driving licence or passport.

Another solution is for manufacturing companies, used to relying on labour, to re-skill their employees to be able to operate, fix, maintain and support the new technologies. The employment associated with this may not equal the total employment from before - but will avoid expensive foreign support.

Meanwhile, weak teaching and lack of learning materials - considered by many experts to be among the chief reasons for South Africa's poor educational outcomes - can be mitigated by technologies such as virtual reality and online learning. Technology can also help South Africa completely transform the way teachers are trained, leading them to provide better education and support to children.

With food security a growing concern, agriculture provides an ideal opportunity for South Africa to harness the benefits that technology can bring to increase yields and efficiencies while creating a booming Agri-processing sector.

Also, natural disaster early detection and medical advancements can create opportunities for supplementary services to expand and benefit communities more while greatly improving early detection to limit real and devastating risks for communities.

However, while these solutions can already be implemented to reduce unemployment and poverty, the reality is that the mere existence of technology will not deliver South Africa from the path it is on.

Political and business will and commitment are needed to ensure that South Africa fully exploits the benefits that 4IR offers. Bold decisions - and leadership - on the part of government and business are needed to ensure that South Africa does not miss the 4IR wave.

Nolene van Tonder is a client director at Canback, a leader in management consulting based on predictive analytics, which brings better results to client organisations.