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Will automation kill South Africa?

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According to a recent report by Accenture, around 5.7 million South African jobs will be at risk over the next seven years due to digital automation. In a country with the worst labour-employee relations in the world (we are ranked bottom out of 137 countries), not to mention our extremely high unemployment rates, the Fourth Industrial Revolution could lead to a local crisis on an unimagined scale.

Digital automationThe Accenture research found that among the top 10 jobs at risk from automation are those of clerks, tellers, mining and maintenance workers, insurance claim and policy processors, bill and account collectors, moulders, casters, furnace operators and team assemblers. Most of these are jobs done by the bulk of the labour force represented by unions and supported by government – those that are currently fighting for higher wages and better working conditions.

“In general, the more predictable and repetitive a job, the more at risk the employee is from being replaced by automation,” the study notes. However, if South Africa can double the pace at which its workforce acquires skills relevant for human-machine collaboration, it can reduce the number of jobs at risk from 3.5 million (20%) in 2025 to just 2.5 million, Accenture says.

The trend to replace people with smarter automated systems has already started. The PwC Global CEO Survey found that South Africa’s already strained job market will come under further pressure over the next 12 months, with CEOs planning to reduce headcount as a result of rapid technology advancements. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that between 400 million and 800 million of today's global jobs will be automated by 2030 as digital platforms and other innovations change the fundamental nature of work.

The facts speak for themselves: In a country with 27.7% unemployment and jobless youths making up 75% of unemployment, the use of automation and AI set to increase exponentially, and South Africa’s education system struggling to produce workers skilled for today’s jobs, we are nowhere close to being ready for the future.

The naming of the Fourth Industrial Revolution indicates that the change is not going to be easy. During the Industrial Revolution, where machines replaced countless jobs almost overnight, the socio-economic effects resulted in major social and political changes – many through violent means. Today, we are facing the same tidal wave of change. The major difference now is that AI has the capability to replace the roles of knowledge workers and highly qualified professionals as well as labour-intensive jobs.

This will place additional strain on a relatively fragile South Africa, since the country relies more on personal income tax than any other income to run. 60% of all money in the fiscus comes from personal income tax, and if “robots” will be doing many of the jobs those taxpayers have been doing, that reduces the kitty considerably.

In light of this, it could be argued that South Africa is facing a crisis at a scale that it has never experienced before, which could well result in a different kind of revolution – the kind that toppled monarchies all over Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. Those revolutions were born of desperation and hunger, and unless South Africa focuses on skilling up its people and preparing them for the brave new world of automation and AI, our already hungry and dispossessed portion of the population will find its numbers growing, and may well find it has nothing left to lose.

Image credit: Copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

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