Today: April 24, 2024

The 4th Industrial Revolution: When bells fall on deaf ears

Since time immemorial humanity has been on a road of discovery. This quest brought us out of caves as hunter gatherers and made us farmers and townsfolk, living quite a revolutionary life. But it did not end there. The first industrial revolution, in the late 18th century, introduced mechanisation. The second industrial revolution, in the early 20th century, brought methods of mass production to the fore. The third industrial revolution occurred in mid-20th century with the introduction of computer technology.

Schwab, the socioeconomic futurist that he is, saw the dawn of cyber-physical systems, artificial intelligence and robots, the now Fourth Industrial Revolution, and, hot on its heels, the convergence of technology and humans, the Fifth Industrial revolution. Sadly, the vast majority of South Africans don’t see the what Schwab saw and sees. They are blissfully ignorant, lacking the knowledge that unlocks the future and damns them to a continued life of poverty and broken dreams. Why?

Let us examine why? The nuances of the trumpet call announcing the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) at the World Economic Forum’s annual Africa meeting in May 2017 was missed by many, and only understood by a few. But, first, let us take stock of where South Africa is now.


South Africa’s national poverty lines, the tools we use to measure money-metric poverty, were adjusted in 2019. These now stand at (in April 2019 prices) per person per month:

  • Food poverty line – R561: This is the amount of money that an individual will need to afford the minimum required daily energy intake. This is also commonly referred to as the “extreme” poverty line.
  • Lower-bound poverty line – R810: This is the food poverty line plus the average amount derived from non-food items of households whose total expenditure is equal to the food poverty line.
  • Upper-bound poverty line – R1 227: This is the food poverty line plus the average amount derived from non-food items of households whose food expenditure is equal to the food poverty line.

Approximately half (49,2%) of the adult population in South Africa are living below the upper-bound poverty line (UBPL). There are now 12 million registered child support grant beneficiaries out of the total of 17 million registered grant beneficiaries receiving a R440 per month per child with the balance disability grants of R1,860 and old age grants of R1,780 every month.


A recent Amnesty International report on education in South Africa paints a picture of a basic education system that is still failing learners from rural and township communities. And, according to the Department of Basic Education in South Africa, the school dropout rate has reached crisis proportions. Of the Class of 2008, approximately 60% of first graders will have dropped out of school rather than complete 12th Grade (matric) in 2020. This means that, since 2004, approximately 8,8 million kids dropped out of school without a matric. According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, Quarter 4: 2019, the highest levels of education are:

Highest level of education (October- December 2019)
Education LevelEmployedUnemployedEconomically InactiveTOTAL
No schooling270 00059 000551 000880 000
Less than primary completed960 000351 0001 456 0002 767 000
Primary completed587 000270 000996 0001 853 000
Secondary not completed5 323 0003 085 0008 281 00016 689 000
Sub Total7 140 0003 765 00011 284 00022 189 000
Secondary completed5 532 0002 336 0003 452 00011 320 000
Tertiary3 592 000579 000689 0004 860 000
Other156 00040 000156 000352 000
TOTAL16 420 0006 720 00015 581 00038 721 000
Source: Statistics SA

Of the economically inactive, 2 855 000 people are classified as being disgruntled work seekers who haven’t looked work within six weeks prior to Statistics SA’s survey. In real terms, unemployment is 9_575_000 people.  The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to push unemployment from 36,8% to reach 50% in 2020.

Even so, combining mechanics, electronics, computer technology and the ingenuity of humanity, we have robots and artificial intelligence, with machines doing the work of humans. So, forget about the race to Mars. The Americans, Chinese and Japanese are in a race to create a fully functional android. Dr David Hanson leads the team of engineers and designers that created Sophia, the most advanced android to date. A combination of Alphabet’s Google Chrome voice recognition technology and other tools enable Sophia to process speech, chat with humans, and get smarter over time.

In the United States of America, 5,8 people are displaced by every robot put into production. It is estimated that by 2030 with the rise of robots and automation 20 million manufacturing jobs will be displaced. In fact, more than 120 million workers globally will need retraining in the next three years due to artificial intelligence’s impact on jobs, according to an IBM survey.

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Japan has spent decades developing and refining various forms of humanoid robots. One looks exactly like he does. In China, a research team from the University of Science and Technology created Jia Jia, a super-lifelike robot goddess. And, China’s state news agency has unveiled its virtual newsreader sporting a sharp suit and a somewhat robotic voice. Xinhua News claims its robot presenter “can read texts as naturally as a professional news anchor”, though not everyone may agree. They say the presenter can “work” 24 hours a day on its website and social media channels, “reducing news production costs”. In a country like South Africa with its overactive unionised workforce, robots will be an attractive option.

As much as humanlike robots may seem creepy, some roboticists are saying that these robots are the key to unlocking a future – a future in which humans and super intelligent computers coexist, work alongside each other and even develop relationships.

But, what does this mean for South Africans in real terms?

Bernard Marr of the Forbes Magazine sums it up very nicely. It’s estimated that between 35 and 50 percent of jobs that exist today are at risk of being lost to automation. Repetitive, blue collar type jobs might be first, but even professionals — including paralegals, diagnosticians, and customer service representatives — will be at risk.

Unless we raise awareness and an understanding of the Fourth Industrial Reveolution, South Africa’s disastrous unemployment figures will increase by five million over the next ten years, negatively affecting approximately fifteen million people – over and above the 35 million currently in the poverty queues. 

This isn’t science fiction. It’s happening now. Manufacturing was the first place we saw robots and automation eliminating human jobs, but it’s hard to think of an industry that will be left unaffected as robots and AI become more affordable and widespread. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and with labour unions becoming increasingly disruptive, it is time to envision a jobless future for many. Unless they change.

All these technological advances we are creating today — big data, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of things — represent a significant challenge to society. The more we automate and systematize, the more we see jobless growth. Taken to its logical extremes, we have the paradox of an exponentially growing number of products manufactured more and more efficiently but against rising unemployment, underemployment, falling real wages and stagnating living standards.

In South Africa, in the 53 years between 1960 and 2013, we witnessed a distinct shift in employment patterns. These data confirm the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Mechanisation has already cost jobs in agriculture, forestry and fishing, mining and quarrying, manufacturing and construction. Overall, total employment decreased by 15.3% over this period.

Sectoral Employment 1960 – 2013
Economic Sector1960s2008-2013% Diff
Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing18.5%5.7%-12.8%
Mining and Quarrying12.1%5.7%-6.4%
Electricity, Gas and Water0.81%0.95%+0.14%
Wholesale & retail, catering & accommodation12.9%19.1%+6.2%
Transport, storage and communications4.8%3.8%-1.0%
Finance, insurance real estate and business services5.6%20.9%+15.3%
Community, social and personal services4.0%4.8%+0.8%
General government services12.1%25.7%+13.6%
Overall Employment Index124105-15.3%
Data source: Statistics SA

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, here and evolving, represents the amalgamation of physical, digital, and biological technology that is totally changing our definitions of efficiency and has profoundly transformed how we are able to process, order and transmit information and apply it in various forms to our world. But, how will it affect jobs? 

Change is coming, in a big way. Education is and will be the survival imperative of the future. Without proper education, in the right fields, unemployment will rise.

Jobs lost/created between now and 2030
Jobs that will be lost Clerical/Process AdministrationManufacturing and ProductionConstruction and MiningSports and Creative IndustriesLawyersMechanics/MaintenanceJobs that will be created Banking, Accounting, InsuranceManagementIT/data AnalysisArchitecture and EngineeringSalesTeaching and Training
Source: World Economic Forum

Where does South Africa stand at present? Of the currently employed, 74% are at risk of losing their jobs in the longer term – because they have matric or less. The new economy demands post-matric qualifications. Socioeconomic planners will need to refocus skills development. 

Pali Lehohla, the immediate past Statistician General said that “Educational attainment increases access to decent jobs, while those with lower educational attainment are at risk of economic marginalisation, since they are less likely to participate in the labour force and are more likely to be without a job, even if they actively seek one.”

And the toughest job going forward? Human resource management!

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