In last week’s column, I sought to place a spotlight on the 2019 World Economic Forum on Africa, the progress that has been made in implementing some of the resolutions reached at the last forum, as well as the relevance of the 2019 programme to the political and economic status quo in South Africa.
At the core of my interrogation, essentially, is to understand the extent to which the WEF on Africa’s agenda is aligned to South Africa’s current needs – let alone the rest of the African continent – many of which are urgent and, arguably, at the core of much of the distress we see all around us.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Discussions about the Fourth Industrial Revolution are important and must be had, especially insofar as many jobs in a number of mass employment sectors of our economy are said to be threatened; all of which happens in a climate of a 29% unemployment rate, with the youth being the most affected.
What does it all mean for South Africa, and what are the short-to-medium term ramifications for the economy as we have known it to date? What will be the role of trade unions? Will they be constructive participants in discussions about what the Fourth Industrial Revolution, together with the increasing number of disruptive technologies that come with it, will mean for our developmental economy and their members?
Will they be disruptors? Or will they place stumbling blocks in the necessary journey we must take to modernise our economy and make it future ready, mindful of the need to avoid having too many traditional economy labourers rendered redundant and left behind?
Are the expected labour casualties unavoidable or will the WEF on Africa help us find ways to cushion those who stand to be most affected in a transitional reskilling period?
To get some answers, I managed to catch up with Doug Woolley, MD of Dell Technologies South Africa and Theo Sibiya, MD of AT Kearney. First, I wanted to understand how well Dell Technologies South Africa understood the political and economic challenges faced by South Africa, as these challenges inform the context in which the 2019 WEF on Africa will be held.
According to Woolley, South Africa’s economic challenges are substantial, but not unusual. The rising debt-to-GDP ratio of the state warrants concern, particularly with debt from critical infrastructure SOEs. Processes for businesses, such as registration, can be improved. There can also be more support for entrepreneurs and SMMEs.
He further believes that South Africa’s social and political challenges must be placed in the country’s historic context and accepted as unique, given the more recent history and what remains a remarkable transition of power. Whereas other societies have been reconfigured through oppression and war, South Africa has chosen the better but harder route, argues Woolley. This has created difficult challenges, such as social integration, rebalancing the distribution of privilege and expanding access to opportunity for everyone, said Woolley, who also referenced inconsistent policies, lackluster political will, business apathy and international market events.
The SA story
“Some of these challenges can be addressed soon, others will take a generation to fix. Employment, development, education, class emancipation and prosperity are the indicators we all look to for a successful South African story. They’re all achievable and many are growing, but the pace can be faster than it currently is,” he added.
Mindful of the need for a more Pan-African, integrated, economic development approach, I asked Sibiya what he thought should be the key areas of focus; upstream, mid-stream, and downstream.
Sibiya is of the firm view that the idea of having centres of excellence across the continent is a great idea, but that it is something that should be done as part of a later stage.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done before we get to this stage of the process and this level of collaboration, he opined. According to him, the first kind of harmonisation step would be to focus on practical elements like industrial strategy and aligning these.
This would give you a sense of which parts of the continent need to drive which types of development, and where there is competitive advantage this would naturally translate into a centre of excellence, he said. “We’ve taken a step in the right direction with the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, but this just an agreement at this stage. The pragmatic and practical steps need to be taken to unlock that agreement around investing in infrastructure, making it easier for data to flow between countries, trying to harmonise trade and industrial policies. All these things still need to happen to effect the vision of an integrated continent and the ability to explore the opportunities centres of excellence would create.”
On this point, Woolley believes that many of the WEF on Africa discussions will look at the confluence between social momentum across the continent and technology. “It’s been said to the point of exhaustion that Africa is a leapfrog continent, citing how different countries adopted mobile technologies to the degree that African mobile innovations are being exported to the rest of the world.
“But this remains true, and came to be for several reasons: Africa’s geographical size and cultural diversity, large populations, broad access to global markets and youthful demographics are all major positives.” Furthermore, modern connected digital technology, merged with the physical world through 4IR, supports those positives more than any other development in modern memory,” he says.
He admits, however, that the devil is in the details. While we can talk in broad strokes about what technology can do for Africa, the solutions that matter will happen closer to the ground, he says. Highlighting and discussing those nuances will be the purpose of the WEF on Africa.
What remains to be seen, in the end, will be the extent to which South Africans here at home and our fellow brothers and sisters across the continent and in the vast diaspora will be left with a sense that the future of their continent will be better illuminated when they look at the various WEF on Africa reports, when they are published.
And as for us, here in South Africa, we wait to see whether those who have been elected to lead us out of the state capture, corruption, and policy uncertainty quagmire would have understood that Zimbabwe and Venezuela are just outside our door steps and will soon be in our living room if nothing is done to speak in one voice and to lead from the front. The dark forces are gathering all around us.