Technology has the ability to change lives

Cybercrime is on the rise and virtually every industry is being affected in some way. Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

South Africans have a choice. Either we embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, prepare our young people with the necessary skills and develop as a country or, as some were with globalisation, fight it and we will only suffer. 

The ANC led government however firmly believes that we need to embrace the 4IR, for as its 54th National Conference resolutions point out, it has the “possibilities of disrupting current economic and social structures profoundly over the next 20 years.” The resolutions of the conference went on to indicate the imperative for all to plan effectively and thus position the country so as to optimise developmental deliverables through the engagement, rather than disengagement, of various scientific and technological innovation. 

Despite these disruptions the ANC believes that this disarrangement in current practices brings opportunities and that the restructuring of industries will ultimately lead to the restructuring of the economy if we embrace this new era within the history of humanity. As a result, government itself, the ANC went on to articulate, needs to ensure that it adapts to these scientific and technological changes in order to speed up and improve service delivery as well as create the necessary environment for SMME’s, cooperatives and self-employment in particular to enhance and flourish. Provinces, especially, were identified to be nodes of this digital transformation to ensure better services and securing economic development through digitalisation.  

In its resolutions at Nasrec, the ANC was clear that all children, in our schools, must be able to access infrastructure so that they seize and strengthen their abilities in, among others, ICT and other digital areas. In fact, the resolutions went on to insist that curricula, through our education departments, must undergo a process of transformation so as to ready our workforce for digitalisation. 

Furthermore, the ANC highlighted the need to link innovation and entrepreneurship to higher education and training, assisting students who are innovative, so as to ensure that the investment into the digital economy delivers more jobs within the 4IR context. In particular, it would be important to add the necessity of the focus on the so-called STEM subjects i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

At the same time, the ANC resolved that this embrace of the 4IR must entail a multi-pronged approach to ensuring the mass roll-out of awareness and it stated that all government departments must undergo a transition into the space of digitalising and embracing ICT. From SITA, to state-owned-enterprises to strengthening our country’s capabilities to combat cyber-crime and even communications, all these areas must undergo initiation in embracing the 4IR. As a consequence, the ANC decided that a coordinating mechanism, tasked with ensuring the improving the utilisation of science, technology and innovation across the public sector, must be established. 

Yet what Nasrec also decided was that the ANC led government needs to ensure that a process is set up whereby government departments coordinate and harmonise policies, incentives as well as encourage and support scientific and technological innovation. Policies must be adopted so as to promote the recognition of the prevalence of science, technology and innovation (STI) so as to integrate these into daily life. As a result, public engagement on the advancement of STI should be intensified.    

It is therefore with these resolutions in mind and the ever rapid evolution into the digital age that the Department of Science and Technology convened its first summit on the new draft White Paper on STI on 9 November 2018. The summit served as a culmination on the first phase of public comment on the draft policy document and cabinet had approved the publication of draft White Paper for comment in September 2018. 

While various stakeholders had made inputs in preparation for the draft White Paper, the Summit saw business, labour and academia gathering to agree that STI forms an integral part of development and investment into the sector remains crucial. In fact, the ANC had resolved at Nasrec that the investment into research and development should be increased to one point five percent of GDP by 2019. 

It was Dr Dominque Ristori, the European Commission’s Director-General of Energy, who pointed out that the most competitive countries in the global economy were the ones who invested much into STI. Research and development, he insisted, was one of the main characteristics of leading economies and companies. Given the challenges across the globe, Ristori suggested that these should be tackled through science, technology and innovation but that an environment conducive to the growth of these was essential. Investing in and funding STI was therefore one of the areas that the Summit concentrated on.

The first White Paper on Science and Technology was adopted in 1996, during the administration under President Mandela. Given the almost instantaneous and immense impact that digitalisation has had across the globe in the last two decades, it is important to understand that the potential sought from the sector, as set out in that first White Paper, had not been realised. Consequently, this new White Paper seeks to prepare South Africa for a 4IR future as involving various sectors of society. While the White Paper may not necessarily address all the resolutions taken at the ANC’s 54th National Conference, it does seek to lay the foundation of such a future where government is primary in promoting and coordinating the fast transition into this digital era.

For example, since the promulgation of the White Paper in 1996, the National Development Plan has been adopted. As the Director-General of Science and Technology, Dr Phil Mjwara, pointed out, the STI has the potential of implementing an array of the Plan’s objectives but also measuring the progress made in the implementation of the overall plan. What was maybe not possible or even thought of in 1996 or even 2010, when the Plan was adopted, might well be possible today given the fast development in the areas of science and technology. However, what the Plan most certainly does do is recognise the integral part played by STI in the developmental agenda of the country. 

The new White Paper therefore seeks to assist our country in moving into the direction that the rest of the globe is moving as well as to take advantage of the developments associated within this era that we are embracing. As a country, we must be able to understand and embrace the scientific and technological changes happening the world over but also confirm that we are aware of the dangers and challenges that accompany these changes.

It is suggested that artificial intelligence will have an immense impact on the place and role of humans in production and development. This could lead to increased and improved productivity but if not welcomed correctly it may lead to unemployment simply because the labour force do not have the requisite skill set to adapt to these changes brought about by AI. Thus AI should lead to redefining roles rather than retrenchments.  

What therefore distinguishes this White Paper from the one of two decades ago is that it is situated in a new era. Like its earlier counterpart it seeks to raise the profile of STI in the country as well as advancing a focus on guaranteeing that STI delivers the necessary socio-economic transformation that is needed by our people. Yet now with the ANC’s 54th National Conference resolutions also in mind, the White paper seeks to facilitate cooperation between government, business, labour, academia and civil society in general so that an enabling environment for STI is created and encouraged. By integrating innovation into government, across departments and between the three spheres, the public sector will hopefully be setting the tone to encourage an expansion and transformation of human resource training so as to create the necessary skills pool. Yet the White Paper also sets out to seek ways in which more investment in STI, public and private, is undertaken.   

The ANC’s resolutions at Nasrec exhorted South Africans to think more positively and creatively about ourselves, our innovation capabilities and publicise our achievements, as South Africans more frequently. While the White Paper has gone the normal route of seeking public comment and is in the process of being finalised, it would do us well to start being positive and mentioning our successes more often. Too many times, we hear about what we are not rather than what we already have accomplished. The work of the Department of Science and Technology is cut out and we know what to do. South Africans, however, must also do their part in ensuring this positivity in embracing this new 4IR era for humanity.   

Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane is the Minister of Science and Technology and ANC NEC Member.