4IR and the South African Workplace

​​​​​The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is upon us. 4IR is affecting all levels of society, including the world of work. In his recent book, Magnetiize, John Sanei asks:

"Am I running away from the darkness, or am I moving towards the light?"

Sanei poses this question within the context of a world that is changing at a rapid pace and the need for people to adapt. New technologies, which are changing the way we live, work and interact, demand a proactive response. This article considers the impact of 4IR on South Africa and in particular, the SA workplace.

Latest on 4IR

4IR is "characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres". It follows that 4IR simultaneously brings great opportunities and serious risks.

Opportunities: new technologies are able to process information faster which in turn can drive economic growth, empower individuals and fuel entrepreneurship and improve the health system.


Risks: new technologies pose serious risks particularly from the perspectives of cybercrimes, personal information and employment

While for employment new technologies can create new jobs, they can also nullify and replace existing jobs. There is accordingly a newfound need to upskill and reskill employees to ensure that they remain relevant in the workplace. Lifelong learning is essential for all people, irrespective of age. This is especially important in light of Statistics SA's latest report on the high levels of unemployment in SA.

Research by NEDLAC

Earlier this year, the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) published a report on the future of work in SA. The report looks at the impact of 4IR on selected industries including the healthcare, energy, transport and mining industries.

In terms of the business services sector, the report finds that there will be a decrease in roles such as telemarketers, legal clerks, rental clerks and cashiers and tellers. On the other hand, there will be an increase in roles such as AI and machine learning specialists, human machine integration coaches and experience-focussed travel agents.

Technology, driven by 4IR, is already disrupting industries across SA. The technology includes digital building blocks (e.g. AI and blockchain), new physical systems (e.g. autonomous vehicles), advances in science (e.g. new energy technologies), mobile applications and online marketplaces.  By way of example, legal services has already seen the introduction of innovations to the discovery process crucial to litigation (i.e. e-discovery) and the use of AI in conducting due diligence reviews undertaken for commercial transactions.

The report also imagines what the world of world will look like in SA by 2030. The 12 main driving forces that will shape the SA workplace are identified as:


One of the concluding comments of the report centres around the education sector. There is a pressing need for education from pre-school level to post-graduate level to be "re-imagined". The education programme in SA must incorporate emerging skills requirements with a particular emphasis placed on lifelong learning.

Establishment of commission

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in the 2018 SONA, established the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The President confirmed that the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) will have oversight of the Commission with the President as chair. The President is supported by 30 other members who comprise representatives from government, business, labour and civil society.

In April 2019, the DTPS announced the names of the members of the Commission and its terms of reference. The Commission's terms of reference recognises that SA does not, at present, subscribe to a single blueprint or strategy regarding 4IR. Since 4IR impacts across all levels of society, there is a need for SA to have a broader perspective and approach on this issue.

The Commission is tasked with advising government on 4IR policy. It is responsible for creating a framework to be implemented across the following key sectors: agriculture, finance, mining, manufacturing, ICT and electronics and business. Science, technology and innovation are described as "cross-cutting enablers" for 4IR in these key sectors. This framework must ultimately assist SA to become a globally competitive country within the 4IR market.

At its first official meeting in June 2019, the Commission met to set objectives and deliverables in different work streams. These works streams are:


The Commission aims to release its first strategy document by March 2020.

On 4IR, Al Gore recently remarked -

"Over half of the global population is connected to the internet and has growing access to the sum total of human knowledge at their fingertips. The internet will increasingly bring about ever more transformational changes for human civilization. However, some of these changes will also bring unpredictable costs."​

There is no doubt that 4IR is already affecting the world at large. We will continue to experience dramatic changes in the way that we live, work and interact with one another.

While SA is on the cusp of internet connectivity reaching all of its citizens, due to infrastructure complications and the rising costs of data, we still have some time to play catch up with the developed world. It is imperative for SA to begin implementing the steps needed to be taken to become a fully-fledged connected country.

To answer Sanei's question, SA seems to have taken a step towards the light in conducting important research and by establishing a government-endorsed Commission. However, until the Commission provides a real plan of action, SA will remain in the dark within the context of 4IR. The Commission's tall task of demystifying SA's approach to 4IR will be critical to our success as a country in the (very near) future.


These materials are provided for general information purposes only and do not constitute legal or other professional advice. While every effort is made to update the information regularly and to offer the most current, correct and accurate information, we accept no liability or responsibility whatsoever if any information is, for whatever reason, incorrect, inaccurate or dated. We accept no responsibility for any loss or damage, whether direct, indirect or consequential, which may arise from access to or reliance on the information contained herein.

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