Bhaso Ndzendze and Tshilidzi Marwala
The pace of development in the world is accelerating at a fast pace. This is because of the rapid technological developments due to the phenomenon called the fourth industrial revolution. President Cyril Ramaphosa established the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (PC4IR) in 2018. The PC4IR presented its report at the beginning of this month (August), following two years of work characterised by hundreds of consultative sessions, stakeholder engagement painstaking research, and traversing various aspects of the South African economy. It then distilled its work to eight core recommendations.
These include investing in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) human capital, establishing an artificial intelligence (AI) institute, creating a platform for advanced manufacturing, securing and availing data to enable innovation, as well as incentivising future industries, platforms and applications of 4IR technologies. The other recommendations are building 4IR infrastructure, reviewing and amending and where necessary, creating relevant policy and legislation, and, finally, establishing a 4IR strategy implementation coordination council. In the implementation of these recommendations, localisation and ownership by various levels of government will be crucial. Invariably, each province draws from unique comparative advantages for the gain of its citizens and the country. What do these recommendations mean for KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) specifically? And how do they interface with some of the initiatives the province has established in recent years?
To begin with, the need to invest in human capital has been apparent for some time in KZN, with a 26.1% rate of unemployment which, though lower than the national average, nonetheless represents an economic situation needing urgent intervention. The province has previously made significant strides concerning human capacity development. Having initiated the Free Maths4stats KZN Lecture Series in 2015 (whose curriculum comprised data handling and probability workshops), KZN clearly prioritised the same sort of computational thinking that is the bedrock of this recommendation. Having been delivered to Grades 7-12, such an initiative carries key (transferrable) lessons which can be adapted in other provinces in the country. The urgency brought on by the acceleration towards the 4IR makes these skills more essential than ever and require the reimagining of the curriculum to include the increasingly relevant knowledge areas of the 4IR.
In its operation, the AI Institute can similarly draw from the province's institutions of higher learning. Moreover, the province's flagship TVET college, uMfolozi (whose slogan is the farsighted assertion 'let the future be known'), can contribute in the localised and for-purpose dissemination of the insights and syllabus generated at the national level. In a similar vein, the establishment of a platform for advanced manufacturing and new materials can be aided by the college's nine skills centres dotted throughout the province, including in Sundumbini, Isithebe, and eShowe. The province's economic strength – representing some 16% to the national GDP, about a quarter of its manufacturing and Africa's busiest seaport – positions it to be a corridor in the strategic inward transfer of foreign technologies and global exposure of locally developed innovations. Lessons are carried in this regard by the experience of China, the significant part of whose development trajectory is due to its eastern, coastal provinces which were furnished with special economic zones and acted as China's strategic springboard.
The securing and availing of data to enable innovation, require the province to take advantage of its niche, including the higher than average connectivity seen in its major cities. This also includes the fact that Durban has the fastest mobile internet speed in South Africa (about 26.66 megabytes per second compared to 6.38 nationally). This is 38.7% faster than that in the slowest region in the country. This means there is potentially more commercially viable digital data in Durban than in any other city in South Africa. Rather than being exploited by foreign corporations, it could be done so by local ones, aided by conducive government policy.
Such a conclusion is reached by a 2013 UKZN study, which determined that in Durban, targeted public policy arrangements often have high effectiveness on innovation. This gives further impetus to the fifth recommendation, as the government can play a leading role in incentivising future industries, platforms and applications of 4IR technologies. These have potential applications in agriculture, for example, and can help combat the province's food insecurity issues (at 1 in 5, estimated to be the most food-insecure province in a 2016 study by researchers from the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal). In turn, building 4IR infrastructure would augment this, as it would enhance the province's pivot towards smart cities, characterised by more efficient service delivery and higher rates of tourism, among others.
Finally, promulgating policies and legislation to regulate foreign and domestically developed 4IR technologies, and establishing a 4IR strategy coordination council carry coherence with the imperatives behind the district development model pioneered in eThekwini in 2019. The 4IR Commission's vision is similarly coherent with the province's own recently published Digital Transformation Strategy as it envisions South Africa with "a globally competitive, inclusive and shared economy with the technological capability and production capacity that is driven by people harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution to propel the country forward towards its social and economic goals."
Dr Bhaso Ndzendze is research director at the University of Johannesburg's Centre for Africa-China Studies. Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and deputy chairperson of the PC4IR. They write in their personal capacity.