Technological advancements provides opportunities for emerging and developing economies in the Global South to grow faster and attain higher levels of prosperity. However, new technologies, in the form of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), is not a panacea for the social and economic challenges emerging markets currently face.

Various sectors of society, including labour unions, have expressed concerns that technological advancement will lead to increased unemployment and greater inequality both within and between nations. As it stands, technologies are encroaching on areas where human abilities were once deemed indispensable. However, the impact of new technologies on labour and income distribution is not predetermined. The correct policies could ensure that the benefits of innovation are shared broadly.

Countries will need to tap into new technologies in a way that maximizes benefits, mitigates risks and ensures inclusive growth. This will require public-private sector cooperation and innovative public policy.

For Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), finding a common ground, and charting a way forward as emerging markets, is essential for their future prosperity, and the continued relevance of the BRICS bloc. It is therefore, entirely understandable that Industry Ministers from BRICS countries recently resolved to establish a BRICS partnership on the New Industrial Revolution (PartNIR).

The aim is to deepen BRICS cooperation on industrialisation, innovation, inclusiveness and investment. Under this partnership, a new industrial revolution advisory group will be established, comprised of various sectors of society, including both policy makers and the private sector. This advisory group will develop a terms of reference and a work plan which will focus on the following key areas:

–  Policy coordination in the context of New Industrial Revolution;
–  Opportunities for cooperation in advanced technical skills and training;
–  Exchange of information and best practices with respect to digitization;
–  Capacity building;
–  Projects which secure inclusive and equitable growth; and
–  Cooperation with stakeholders for greater synergy of human and financial resources.

While these partnerships are critical on an economic level, so as to advance our industries and learn from countries who are at different stages of readiness with regards to 4IR, this does not address other key areas which require attention.

We are on the brink of a revolution that will fundamentally change the way we live, work, and relate to one another. Researchers have indicated that the scale, scope, and complexity of the transformation will be unlike anything mankind has experienced before.

While these new technologies hold immense possibilities, they are also seen as a threat, potentially disrupting labour markets and contributing to greater inequality. The biggest fear is that robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will replace human jobs on a large scale, resulting in mass unemployment .

While there is no reason to downplay the impact of new technologies on labour markets and inequality. It is important to note that technologies replace certain tasks rather than complete occupations, while new technologies also create new employment opportunities for careers which have not yet been invented, requiring new skills from workers.

This poses a particular challenge to South Africa, whose workforce is largely engaged in manual labour, and whose education system currently does not prepare young people for careers that would be relevant to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Education is at the heart of preparing present and future generations for 4IR, and South Africa’s current curriculum just does not measure up. Countries such as South Korea and Japan, have been including robotics in the curriculum for years and are reaping the rewards by being at the forefront of technological advancements.

While, there remains structural impediments from the residual effects of Apartheid on our education system, our reform can not only be to correct the inequalities of the past. We need to work towards delivering quality education that prepares our youth for a changing and evolving workforce.

If we don’t, we will continue to produce a workforce that meets the needs of the 2nd and 3rd Industrial revolution, which would result in massive job losses based solely on a skills mismatch, further exasperating inequality between and within nations.

Therefore, our educations system, as advised by Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, during the debate on the State of the Nation this year, needs to be overhauled. An overhaul will require changing the curriculum, re-training teachers and working with Universities to produce new teachers embedded in the new model.

Another challenge facing South Africa, as it starts to plan for 4IR, is the current workforce. Many jobs and entire industries will be affected as new technologies are introduced into the workplace. According to a Deloitte report on the future of mining in Africa, mining digitisation will bring about data-driven planning, control, and decision-making. “Mines are likely to adopt digital innovations to not only improve safety, operational efficiency and profit margins; but also remain competitive,” the report says.

With increased digitization and the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), it is likely that all sectors in South Africa will be affected, and the skills mismatch between what is needed and what we have, could widen the inequality gap. A large proportion of the nearly 500 000 people employed in South African mining alone may stand to lose their jobs.

New technologies may further concentrate benefits and value in the hands of the already wealthy. However, this is not predetermined. Historically, technological innovations have enhanced the productivity of workers and created new products and markets, thereby generating new jobs in the economy. South Africa needs to be at the forefront of 4IR, so that it is not merely a recipient of technology, but that it produces it. To do this, South Africa needs to ensure it develops a 4IR development plan, similar to the National Development Plan. This plan, would require collaboration between Labour Unions and the public and private sector.

While the collaboration between BRICS countries, and the subsequent launch of PartNIR, is critical for South Africa’s conceptualisation of a new economy driven by 4IR, the actual modalities which could ensure South Africa maximizes benefits, mitigates risks and ensures inclusive growth, still need to be developed.

Technological innovation can be an engine for productivity, but it needs to be shaped by policies at a national level. With job security being at the forefront of fears related to 4IR, the South African government can not afford to take a passive wait-and-see approach. Legislation can and must influence these processes through proactive policies, to ensure the gains are broadly shared by all citizens.

Fazlin Fransman is a Senior Researcher at Moja Research Institute

Moja Research Institute will be hosting the #MojaBRICSDialogue on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and other key issues facing BRICS Nations, on the 20th July 2018 at Lilliesleaf, Rivonia.