COVID-19 and 4IR in South Africa

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Friday, 29 May 2020
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COVID-19 and 4IR in South Africa




In recent times there had been a lot of talk around the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in South Africa. It was widely accepted that we needed to be prepared for this change to the economy and people’s livelihoods. Government advised that 4IR would bring a positive transformation to the beleaguered South African economy. With the concern about the loss of jobs, it was understood that the education system in South Africa need to change in order to prepare young people to have the skills necessary to find employment in the future. Additionally, the communication infrastructure needed to be upgraded to enable this technology.

In March 2020, South Africa, like the most of the world, started the measures against the COVID-19 pandemic This changed life for everyone. Due to the lockdown measures businesses closed and people stayed at home, only leaving to shop for essential food items. Suddenly, many of the aspects of 4IR became crucial to everyday life. As tech analyst, Arthur Goldstuck stated, “it is clear that the coronavirus crisis will have at least one positive outcome. It will provide a dramatic, global and unavoidable case study of the fourth industrial revolution in action”. 


There are numerous technologies underlying 4IR. Some of these include cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, Blockchain, Big Data, drones, robotics, biotechnology, Cryptocurrency and digital communications. Many of these technologies were already in use but the pandemic has dramatically increased the numbers of businesses using them, not out of choice but out of necessity. The technology offers methods of working and living while observing social distancing. What has happened, is that many businesses have seen many advantages in some of the new ways of operating and intend using them going forward. 

Suddenly the idea of working from home became not something that would be viewed with suspicion by employers, but a necessity. Many businesses have been forced into embracing this mode of working, or face closing their doors permanently. Obviously not all staff are able to work from home, particularly those involving manual labour such as the agricultural, building and manufacturing sectors. However, many businesses have found that having staff working remotely is not such an impossible task and has helped to keep the wheels turning until lockdown eases. 

Business meetings, conferences, training, in fact any face to face exchanges, have been replaced by online video meetings. People who had never used online video software are now doing so in order to connect to work colleagues as well as family and friends.  There are many apps that enable teams to chat and communicate. Companies who were reluctant to use online meetings have suddenly realised the very substantial cost savings, in time, accommodation and travelling expenses to be gained.

eCommerce has really shown its value. The ability to purchase online and have goods delivered has proved invaluable to enable social distancing. The demand in South Africa initially exceeded the capability and resources of companies offering this service.  Many larger retail organisations have scrambled to improve and upgrade their ecommerce platforms as well as improved their delivery services. It is likely that many consumers will continue to use online shopping even after lockdown, as they have experienced its convenience, as well as the fact that the threat of COVID-19 will still be around for months to come. Many businesses who did not trade online have now found a way to be able to trade online and thus continued to service their customers. 


With schools and universities being closed, many students and learners have been forced to turn to online lessons in order to keep their studies up to date. The loss of a whole academic year is unthinkable so teachers and students have learned to use online teaching methods to keep studies up to date.  Unfortunately, many students have been unable to access any form of online teaching and many schools are unable to provide the function. Sadly, the access to online teaching methods is often available only to the more affluent sections of the population and not to the people who desperately need it.


There has been an increase in the use of 4IR technologies in health care, specifically around COVID-19. 3D printing has been used by the University of Johannesburg to produce reusable surgical face shields to satisfy the increasing requirement for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Similarly, an AI programme has been developed that predicts with up to 80% accuracy which coronavirus patients will develop acute respiratory disease. Drones are being used to deliver medical supplies and robots to do deep cleansing. There are many examples of AI being utilised in the race to understand the virus and to find treatments and a vaccine. 

Challenges Highlighted

The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the deep inequalities in South Africa. Poor or non-existent physical infrastructure, not just in the rural areas but in suburbs around metropolitan areas make access to Internet, difficult if not impossible. This results in employees who are willing to work from home being unable to do so, due to the lack of physical infrastructure in the area in which they live. 

The high cost of data puts the ability to get online out of reach of a large section of the population.  Many student and learners simply cannot afford the hardware or the cost to connect to the internet and so cannot use any online learning facilities. 

South Africa already had a large unskilled labour force and massive unemployment. With the effects of the coronavirus epidemic, this situation has become even worse. Jobs are being lost due to the economic fallout from the lockdown measures used to control the pandemic. These measures are being implemented not only locally but globally and are having disastrous effects on current and future jobs in all sectors of the economy. The workers affected will generally find it extremely difficult to find new employment. 

It has become very apparent that unless there is huge investment in improving both the physical infrastructure and education then the benefits and advances made by the Fourth Industrial Revolution cannot be successfully implemented in South Africa.

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