Africa has over the ages found itself participating in economies created outside of the continent with socio-political goals geared for societies elsewhere. This was true of the previous three industrial revolutions. The more positive among us, however, argue that the Fourth Industrial Revolution provides Africa with an opportunity to participate actively - and not as spectators.
I, unfortunately, am not as optimistic. Here’s why. Given how the other three revolutions manifested with Africa as mainly an observer and tool, and the inequality resulting from the racist and sexist foundations of these revolutions, I am doubtful that we can participate equally in the fourth.
Does this mean I think we should sit back and be acted upon by these shifts in technology? To the contrary, I too do see some possibilities for positive impact. But even in my cautious optimism, I still struggle to get over the fact that the already marginalised might remain stuck or become worse off, unless societies, our governments and big corporates act swiftly and reflect deeply about the place of humanity in our continued search for ways to increase profits.
The marginalised that I want to put forward in this piece are black fathers. I know many of us assume that because patriarchy and its relatives, capitalism and heterosexuality, are generally understood to benefit men, that the advantages from these unequal systems benefit all men equally. They do not. Although, black men undoubtedly benefit from these systems, they do so unequally. This is because the universalities that result because of these systems are not really universal.
The problem with universalising the particularly western, as noted in decolonial theory, is not only a challenge for our conceptions of African states and universities in Africa.
It is also true with the way we think about African families and how and who plays roles in those families. For example, black fathers have been argued to be the majority of absent parents when compared to their white and Indian counterparts in South Africa.
My contention with this comparison is that it is based on a western middle-class conception of presence and discounts the actual socio-economic experiences of these so called absent black fathers.
The notion that black fathers are simply absent is tricky because it is usually based on the problematic dichotomy between absence and presence which undermines the complexities and flux of absence and presence.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, like the other three, has built within it the power to transform society and most importantly, the power to transform what it means to relate to one another as humans.
In a journal article on cellphones and intimacy, that I wrote in 2012, I indicated that technology highlights that which already is. Again, in the case of fatherhood, technology is making visible the reality that so called absent fathers remain present in their absence. Technology and smart technology in particular has the ability to make presence in absence.
Through Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp and other technologies fathers can be made present in their absence. Other socio-historical processes have created this presence in absence.
At my recent professorial inauguration at UJ, I illustrated that we tend to keep our absent fathers present in absence because our relationship with our fathers is made by multiple social factors, including how significant social others (mothers, Bo-Malome, Bo-Rrangwane, Bo-Rakgadi uncles and aunties, teachers and neighbours) in our lives and institutional processes (forms at schools and other state institutions) in our social contexts keep these fathers present.
I argued in the lecture that many children are drawn to their fathers in their absence because they yearn for the possibilities their presence promises - this is usually linked to the promise for a provider or protector - roles that a lot of black fathers are unable to play given the current high rates of unemployment and underemployment. Again, this yearning for a particular type of father happens because society makes children inadequate when their fathers are present in “the wrong way” - that is why children with fathers in their house volunteer for research projects on father absence.
Therefore, I would like to make a case for the possibility of seeing the reality of black fathers as simultaneously absent and present rather than the pathologising of fathers who sometimes seem absent but are in reality present in one way or the other. Society essentialises not the father but an idea of a particular kind of father.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution presents possibilities for making visible simultaneous father presence and absence, however the profit motive of capitalism and the inequality built into it mean that access to smart technology is limited for the unemployed and underemployed.
It is a fact data is expensive and to maintain a smart-phone and other technologies coming out of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not easily accessible to all.
Again, the possibilities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution remain shaky for black men as they do not have the high skills needed to participate actively in the productive side of this revolution.
The African Gender Develop- ment index illustrates young boys drop-out in large numbers from high school. This might mean that African men will once again be spectators in the productive side of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
* Khunou is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg
The Sunday Independent