28 February 2022
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is to transform the region as per SADC Vision 2050, which seeks to build a competitive middle- to high-income industrialised society. Historically, technological progress has been a crucial driver of transformation. We are now at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) or Industry 4.0, which is bringing forth technologies that provide an opportunity to leapfrog and transform southern Africa’s industries to evolve into uniquely African expressions of the fourth iteration of the revolution. However, the futures of industrialisation in SADC require an in-depth understanding of Industry 4.0 and other important drivers. These include the greening of economies; urbanisation and rising incomes; the shift towards decentralisation, especially in energy; and the shift of geopolitical power as China rises. The main uncertainties that will shape SADC’s industrialisation are the governance of Industry 4.0 on the one hand and the shift towards sustainability or GEs on the other. Multinational technology companies are already exerting significant control over Industry 4.0 technologies, as emerging platform economies give them significant political and financial power, such that they can fend off government regulation that might be to the benefit of the poor and marginalised. On the other hand, a shift towards sustainability is gaining impetus on the back of global treaties to combat climate change among other things. However, legacy industries vested in carbon-based economies are putting up significant resistance. The interaction of the two uncertainties discussed above provides several probable futures, many of which have already started emerging in present-day Southern Africa. A future already emerging is the use of ‘cobots’, robots that complement humans, therefore posing less of a threat to job availability. At another extreme, Industry 4.0 platform economies are breaking traditional jobs into small gigs that are creating the equivalent of modern-day sweatshops. Achieving a desired future and fulfilling the SADC Vision 2050 will crucially depend on nurturing the pockets of the future while ensuring we do not break the present.