Photo: File IOL
JOHANNESBURG - If ever the expression "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" had any relevance, it is in the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) debate.

Fear of losing jobs to machines, among others, exposes us to the risk of losing out permanently - unnecessarily so.

4IR will neither slow down nor stop on our account. Therefore, our only saving grace is to inform ourselves about it.

South Africa remains Africa's leading economy. Our institutions, from banking supervision to our courts, Chapter 9 institutions, corporate governance frameworks, are world-class. Our Constitution bestowed on us a solid framework to uphold many rights.

The only thing it cannot protect us against is innovation or its unavoidable impact on how we do things.

4IR is the inevitable continuation of the first, second and third waves of industrial revolution. These three brought us mechanisation and steam energy, mass production and electricity, and computers, respectively.

No one revolution has a finite beginning and ending, when the next one kicks in. They are mere phases of the ongoing improvement to our quality of life, defined in hindsight.

South Africans have always been at the forefront of innovation; and innovation is the principal lever of 4IR and world firsts.

Dr Chris Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant in December 1967. Shortly thereafter, in the mid-1970s, a hydraulics engineer named Ferdinand Chauvier birthed the one innovation that is synonymous with modern pool maintenance worldwide. This was in Springs, Ekurhuleni, and the trend-setter was Kreepy Krauly.

Now, in March 2019, Professor Mashudu Tshifularo at the University of Pretoria led the breakthrough middle-ear transplant - using 3D technology - to fix hearing loss.

Innovation is not the preserve of any race, gender, nationality or culture. It resides in any human who chooses to respond creatively to a challenge; building on their prior experience or insights, and relying on their faith in limitless possibilities. South Africans are well capable of that.

They know how to learn new ways and unlearn old habits. Yet, on a daily basis, we hear tensions between labour unions and the government or private sector, because of the mistaken perception that innovation and technological advancement presuppose job losses.

A case in point is the objection by the labour unions to the restructuring of power utility Eskom and to the deals signed with independent power producers (IPPs). Most of the IPPs are about renewables - clean energy in order to sell it to the national grid. The gripe labour unions have with this process is the risk of job losses.

Back to the “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” metaphor. What is a genuine campaign to save jobs has been fatally entangled with another desirable innovation: renewable energy.

The latter is in keeping with the global trend; the shift to renewable energy on the wave of innovation away from coal-fired power stations. Renewables include solar, hydro and wind power, among others.

Africa, including South Africa, has these resources in abundance and should use them to its own benefit. However, the legitimate protest by labour unions at the fear of unemployment is pitted against what we should have been prepared for long ago.

Preparation signifies not just rigorous on-the-job training for employees, but also ensuring that our school system is geared towards the future at all times.

TVET colleges, universities of technology and universities cannot be allowed to educate the youth without due consideration of labour market requirements.

Education ought to respond to what the market needs today and what it is likely to require tomorrow. All the way to early childhood development, South Africa could easily position itself for 4IR-compliant education, teaching skills that enable young people to think and adapt to dynamic economic and industrial conditions. This is what 4IR means.

As Brand South Africa, we believe that 4IR should be about "digital transformation and human development". This presupposes the organic bond between 4IR and inclusive development of the majority of our people.

It will take several stakeholders aligning their policies and strategies to create the synergies that will see us through the current wave of the fourth industrial revolution to the fifth.

We believe the commission established by President Cyril Ramaphosa to advise on 4IR will forge a platform for collaboration among labour, private sector, public sector, civil society, investors and the international community.

Should this alignment and collaboration materialise, South Africa can convert what already exists to real industrialisation - with attendant socio-economic spin-offs.

For example, the Education MEC’s provincial smart schools’ initiative, under which he installed smart boards in many schools and provided tablets to disadvantaged learners in Gauteng, can migrate education to a fully digital platform - eliminating the need for any paper. That is 4IR; the infrastructure is already there, but our minds are not necessarily aligned.

Many online radio and TV stations are mushrooming all over South Africa and the continent, as data becomes cheaper and connectivity faster.

This is an opportunity for 4IR thinking - to take education, healthcare and government services to everyone for less than a quarter of the current cost. It is our thinking that needs to shift into 4IR gear.

We already have what it takes to realise that 4IR is not a destination in the future, but that it is here; and can co-exist with inclusive socio-economic development.

As Brand South Africa, like we recently did through a workshop with the objective of interrogating the “African Digital Economy” to establish what Industry 4.0 is, and unpacked its implications for government, business, and society at large - we will continue to create platforms for engagement and collaboration among stakeholders and partners.

Thembi Kunene-Msimang is the acting chief executive of Brand South Africa.

BUSINESS REPORT