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Sunday, May 16, 2021

South Africa and the fourth industrial revolution

Staff Reporter

The draft White Paper on Science and Technology envisions a South Africa that will participate in the fourth industrial revolution, the era of  increase automation, digitisation and artificial intelligence.

The white paper is set to inform government’s response to the fourth industrial revolution.

On Monday, Science and Technology Minister, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said the paper was a milestone long-term policy direction.

She said science, technology and innovation (STI) will ensure a prosperous and inclusive society in which the potential of all South Africans is realised.

Kubayi-Ngubane said at a briefing in Pretoria on Monday that members of the public have 30 days to weigh in on the document.

The first White Paper on science and technology was adopted in 1996. The new policy document is meant to focus on ensuring the country benefited from science, technology and innovation for economic growth, social development and transformation.

“STI lies at the heart of preparing for the emerging future. South Africa needs to build on progress in areas such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, advanced manufacturing as well as ICT research and innovation,” said Kubayi-Ngubane.

She said the white paper proposed policy interventions including accelerated skills development, leveraging ICT, open markets as well as support for interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research.

The current White Paper shifts the focus of South Africa’s science sector towards business-led innovation that tackles societal problems and expands the economy.

It also reaffirms a key government goal to boost total research and development (R&D) spending from 0.8% to 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the next decade.

On 5 September, the document was approved by the government’s cabinet, which will refer the legislation to Parliament, where it will be open for public comment before being signed into law.

“This White Paper proposes policy interventions to accelerate skills development, leverage ICT, commit to openness and support inter and transdisciplinary research. It also puts in place mechanisms to institutionalise foresight capacity to assist collaborative planning across government for STI.”

South Africa’s universities are already on board

University of Witwatersrand (Wits) Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib said Wits at the forefront of the technology revolution.

Habib indicated that Wits is embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution and infusing technology through all aspects of University life, including teaching, research and learning. 

Habib said Wits was in partnership with Telkom, the University of Fort Hare and the University of Johannesburg to explore how the Fourth Industrial Revolution could shape the futures of South Africa. The partnership will explore the impact of the 4IR on the economy and seek to build an inclusive developmental future for all South Africans.

He said Wits has embraced the Fourth Industrial Revolution and infuse technology through all aspects of University life, including teaching, research and learning.

“We have invested R500 million in an ICT upgrade, adopted a new cutting edge research strategy, and introduced innovative blended learning options, including a digital campus, online courses and high tech classrooms,” said Habib.

Not only is STI pushed in academic spaces but the department of science and technology will use this to improve the lives of south Africans.

What about the workers?

Kubayi-Ngubane said STI will be  used to modernise existing industries such as agriculture and mining; develop emerging industries such as those linked to the next industrial revolution; exploit new sources of economic growth such as green industries and improve the quality of life.

She added that civil society will be empowered to distribute the benefits of technology to communities, as well as to help identify and support grassroots innovators.

The White Paper reveals that ciivil society will be involved in high-level government planning for STI programmes and will be supported by training, funding and networks to play a stronger role. There will also be support for grassroots and social innovation, when linked to provincial and local development strategies, with the hope that this will have significant transformative results.

Workers will be affected.

During a briefing in Pretoria on Monday, Kubayi-Ngubane said traditional jobs were already being lost due to automation and traditional commerce disruptions with the rise of electronic commerce and services.

Mining and labour analyst Mamokgethi Molopyane said government needed to collaborate with employers in sectors that have high automation potential and come up with policy that will proactively mitigate the negative impact that automation can be expected to have on thousands of workers – including how to reskill, and where to reassign displaced workers.

*An education system that makes the biggest contribution is one that is agile, fosters innovation, evolves as work changes, and can transition in line with the advances of technology. Current attempts at fixing the education system are archaic and indicate how unprepared we are for the future,” said Kubayi-Ngubane.



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