• Jackie Nagtegaal

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is the future – is South Africa ready?


When it comes to strategising to reinvigorate South Africa’s economy, there are multiple discussions on how to implement the future-forward ways of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s a shiny prospect for the country. But is South Africa ready for this widespread overhaul and fundamental shift, and will human dignity always be prioritised?

“Future” and “revolution”: two words that strike fear in the hearts and minds of many. The former leaves a bitter aftertaste of uncertainty and the latter conjures up images of conflict. However, for others, these words instil hope, and provide the opportunity to transform countries on social and economic levels.


There is often a misconception that the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s (4IR’s) focus on tech-driven change will result in a dystopian future devoid of a people-first system. But there is a growing school of thought that believes in the opposite. By harnessing the power of converging technologies, all key players in a society will be empowered to build an inclusive, human-centred future.


Reading a recent Gazette, I was not only relieved to see the government proclaim its support for the 4IR but, crucially, mandate itself as the custodian, too. More importantly, there was a strong understanding of the 4IR’s goal in our local context. That is, to not merely implement various sophisticated technologies across economic sectors, but also to ensure the outcomes lend themselves to transforming South African communities and improving the livelihoods of people. Ultimately, as Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams maintained, it’s about creating an “inclusive, economically vibrant society”.

ADVERTISING Creating technological artefacts and digital systems is not the sole objective of the 4IR; it’s more about injecting those assets, systems and solutions into various economic sectors and giving South Africa a much-needed financial edge. The 4IR can become a scaffold for a better future for all.

The use of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and a digitally enabled workforce will, for example, change the mining sector radically. There will be a vast increase in mineral wealth, thanks to the maximisation of mineral extraction, reduction of mining hazards, enhancement of safety for workers and accuracy of data collection. When it comes to accessing the remaining mineral reserves, which are too deep in the ground for humans to extract safely, robotics can be deployed. The use of automation and digital rock face mapping can determine which rocks are mineral-rich and just how much can be mined from them.

Similarly, the agricultural sector will undergo a significant overhaul. For example, the combination of artificial intelligence and big data will allow for “precision agriculture”, resulting in better crop health monitoring, harvest time diagnosis and soil moisture measurement, to name but a few. To preserve seed and plant resilience, biotechnology and agro-informatics will come into play and directly enhance food production, quality and security (all benefits for current and future generations). Then, of course, on the always-important topic of water conservation, automated monitors and sensors will help ensure only the required amount of water is used for growing crops.

Speaking of water usage, the health and sanitation sector will benefit from the 4IR, thanks to the introduction of smart meters that will give detailed and accurate info regarding use. Furthermore, intelligent solutions could be implemented to provide safe drinking water for communities in South Africa.

With all of this in mind, it is also easy to envision how 4IR technologies can help improve service delivery within government spheres, using artificial intelligence and data analytics. This will be of service to the health sector, environmental sector and education sector to deliver optimum results.

Finally, in the manufacturing sector, 4IR technologies and processes can help this shrinking industry by driving prices down, lowering production costs and increasing product output. This will help rebuild the industry so that it can compete with global alternatives. The manufacturing industry can boom if there is state-led research, which incorporates advanced technology and building of new material.

Of course, it would be remiss to not adopt a critical lens and consider everything in a uniquely South African context. We don’t have to look too far to encounter a few speed bumps on the road to the revolution. After all, any radical overhaul needs a solid base to build upon. Is our country ready?

Right out of the gate, there is the issue of a lack of coherent and consistent policy regarding the adoption and implementation of 4IR processes. This means acquiring permits for future-forward construction or development will be challenging and potentially off-putting. What’s more, from a legislative perspective, the provisions often seem to be at odds, so anyone looking for clarity regarding the road ahead might be left scratching their head in confusion. Uncertainty is never an ideal building block.

Second, the absence of skills and increasing unemployment are significant hurdles for the expediting of the implementation of the 4IR in South Africa. Elementary or unskilled workers comprise the largest share of the country’s workforce, which necessitates widespread upskilling or reskilling. Not to mention, the South African labour market is a cause of concern, as 4IR requires skilled workers, technicians and professionals, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Without the necessary skilled labour force, any mention of the 4IR would be all talk and no action, and no action equals low productivity and increased economic strain.

Third, there is an infrastructure and innovation shortfall. Key industry players continue to implement antiquated approaches and methodologies to run their businesses, and the same can be said about the government. What’s clear is that we also need to see the connection between the reluctance to embrace innovative, tech-driven strategies and methods and fragile and old-fashioned infrastructure. A shift in mindset is essential for the elimination of high operating costs, ineffective administrative and management processes, ageing equipment and outdated machinery.


In preparing to embrace the 4IR, the government set up a Presidential Commission to report on how South Africa can forge forward in light of 4IR. These are some of the critical recommendations that stood out for me:

To participate fully in the 4IR, there is a need to invest in human capital. Learners must be thoroughly equipped to acquire knowledge, considering the speed of accreditation, flexibility and mobility of learners and remote delivery of content. New skills need to be introduced at primary, secondary and tertiary level in subjects such as science, technology engineering, robotics, programming, and artificial intelligence data analytics.

Furthermore, South Africa needs to prepare for future jobs that may not even exist currently. However, this is only possible if there is an extensive application of futuristic thinking in the corporate, government and education sectors.

But this futuristic thinking will stagnate if there isn’t a support system around it. Therefore, South Africa needs to accelerate building infrastructure that is in line with the digital space and way forward. Central to access and participation of citizens in 4IR is access to the internet. This is now considered an essential service. The goal is to have 100% accessible broadband connectivity that meets the needs of the country in terms of cost, speed and quality.

Duplication of infrastructure in business and government must be eradicated. It is of interest to restructure the information communication and technology governing bodies to align with new technological trends. Additionally, industries must be modernised to accommodate a sophisticated network between different economic sectors.

Of course, all this “big” thinking shouldn’t alienate the smaller critical players in the economy. Government needs to establish hubs for SMMEs and entrepreneurs to make use of digital resources to enhance their businesses. Furthermore, they must incentivise the use of 4IR by rewarding tax breaks, providing tech hubs and technological platforms. With all of this in place, it will streamline business and inspire others to become active participants in the economy. But what about the people? We are pursuing a “human-centred” future that prioritises the wellbeing and dignity of citizens, after all. Well, the establishment of policy labs that allow public participation to develop a fully comprehensive policy that is inclusive and reflective of a democratic state in relation to 4IR will assist in that regard. The onus will be on government to partner with the private sector, academia, civil society and other stakeholders to ensure that all the needs of the citizens are identified and that 4IR has a positive impact on the economy and wellbeing of the citizens.

As South Africa embraces the 4IR, one of the key elements to consider is the need to change policy and regulation to be in line with the new environment – intellectual laws, property laws, investment laws, financial laws and other relevant laws. These laws should be reformed accordingly to create an enabling environment for 4IR. Policies must be drafted with South African entrepreneurs in mind, including innovators and investors. Therefore, the policy must be inclusive, agile and flexible in its approach.

Policymakers must remain versatile and flexible as new technology becomes available, in the event of future changes. While policy must leverage technological advancements, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, policies must ultimately help reach the developmental and transformational goals, such as eradication of poverty.

Considering the incredible impact technology can have in various sectors and the government’s willingness to embrace it, I am optimistic about the implementation of 4IR in South Africa. However, care must be taken to ensure that the inequality gap does not widen. No one must be left behind in participating in the 4IR. The goal of 4IR is wealth creation and prosperity. Prosperity entails restoring human dignity so that every community has access to infrastructure and facilities. The benefits of 4IR must lead to fair and even distribution of wealth. Failure to incorporate 4IR will be detrimental to the people of South Africa, due to the collapse of industry since the world will be forging ahead.

We cannot be left in the dust, because our collective future hangs in the balance.


Published in Daily Maverick 3 December 2020.