Opinion: 4IR. A chance or curse for labour

​By: Frans Baleni

In the 1960s, a concern was raised at home and in a church I attended about Neil Armstrong`s daring mission to the moon. I remember Mrs Motloung, our neighbour, saying, ‘These people are going to die, they are upsetting God.’ In 1969, as we all know, Armstrong made it when he became the first man to land on the moon in Apollo 11.

My friends and I were not clear how to react to this dare- devil mission, save to say it seemed a mission impossible. We had very limited access or information on innovation and technology at the time. We had never been inside a stationary airplane, let alone flying in it.

This ‘dramatic event’ was summed up by an old man in our area, known as Ntate Sekgoahla, when he said; ‘Makgowa a loya ke pheto ke to (the whites are witches, that’s it)!’

As is well known now, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is now firmly upon us, and it is common cause that this visionary concept is about knowledge evolution as explained in our history. The first industrial revolution in the main was about knowledge formulation, which led to steam mechanisa- tion in accordance with Newton`s laws of motion.

The second industrial revolution, on the other hand, was about knowledge evolution, which resulted to development of electrification, mass production, etc, in accordance with electro-magnetism as postulated by Faraday and Maxwell. The third industrial revolution was about distribution; that is transistors based on semiconductors, hence we experienced the internet, among other innovations, as articulated by Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley.

Whereas the 4IR is about knowledge mutation, artificial intelligence as promoted by Turing. This refers to cyber-physical systemisation, artificial cognisation, robotisation and many more. The overarching thread that runs through all this is that, while the industrial revolution has been on the move in different epochs, South Africans were excluded.

Let me illustrate from my personal experiences. I joined the mining industry in the 1970s, as a gold mine worker in Free State, in Welkom. At the time, local lads had no interest in working in the mines, because mining was associated with the danger and backwardness. It was even difficult to get a girlfriend at the time as a mineworker. In those days the South African mining industry employed more then 800 000 workers, with few operating mines. In the Free State alone, there were more than 250 000 workers. Few year later some of the mines were closed others became modern mines with less employees.

Recalling my experiences of the 1970s, it was serious hard labour. I worked deep down in the belly of the Earth for nine years, in searing temperatures of not less than 45C. Fast-forward to 2018, the mining industry employs about 400 000 workers with more miners but on a smaller scale. Copies of the Modern Mining Magazine I receive every month reflects on measures taken by the producers in the employment of innovations in different levels. The safety improvement among others includes the introduction of the technology of proximity detection system (PDS). Productivity improvement and mining efficiencies measures uses technology. The point I`m building up to for discussion is: is the 4IR, innovation and technology an opportunity for all of us or is it a curse for labour and future job seekers?

Different responses to the 4IR phenomenon

In my previous experiences, I have learnt that one must never complain about things you can change and those things you can’t change. I also remember Dr John Tibane saying: ‘If you don`t manage change, change will mismanage you.’ With regard to the 4IR, there seems to be in the main two schools of thought.

There are those who say this is just a commercial ploy to promote business interests to an extent of cutting jobs, introducing convenient alternatives to workers and increasing profits.

Another school of thought is that, let’s participate and influence the direction of the 4IR, as that can also address our socio-economic challenges.

The reality on the ground; While the wheels of the 4IR are moving inexorably, I`m of the view that key stakeholders are not ready to board this fast-moving train of knowledge mutation. I have seen situations where companies get angry after a strike, and therefore resolve to mechanise. My friends, anger has never produced a sustainable solution. On the other hand, organised labour is in a permanent fragmentation path and infighting to an extent that, this 4IR will be like a midnight express train to them if they don`t unite and act with agility. It is not good enough to say we don`t want this and that, this is the time of creativity and innovation.

There is a need for labour to reposition itself and confront the reality by addressing the key concerns of our economy, which is job creation on a sustainable basis. The reality on the ground is that we are seeing massive job losses in a number of sectors, not only mining. The 4IR is here to stay. I never asked for the introduction of the mobile phone but today, as we all know, the first thing you touch when you wake up is not your partner but your gadget; this is another reality on the ground. By the way, the reality is that no worker enjoys hard labour. Even prisoners hate hard labour.

As a former gold miner, if there are any safe methods of doing work with less physical labour, then I would have opted for that voluntarily. The protective equipment is uncomfortable, and yet you need it for your own safety. The reality on the ground calls for a serious conversation with key stakeholders on this matter of the 4IR and the future of work. In one meeting, a comrade once said ‘this fourth industrial revolution is a white monopoly capital tool to take away our economic rights.’ I then realised that the reality on the ground is that we are not addressing real issues but casting doubts in order not to focus on real issues. I`m concerned that short-term and populist approaches do not take away the facts and the reality that is unfolding.

What is to be done?

Never before has it become so compelling for organised labour to stand up as one voice and participate in shaping the 4IR than today. It is a fact that non-participation may lead to labour concluding that the 4IR is a curse and not an opportunity.

The participation should be twofold; the first being acquisition of knowledge on the subject matter, and second, formulation of informed views which will create opportunities for all who are engaging the 4th Industrial Revolution debate and action.

I am of the view that the 4IR can also be channelled into resolving some of our challenges in health, education and unemployment. One of the biggest challenges in our country is road accidents. We can make use of technology and innovation to eliminate fatalities on our roads. In the mining industry, the Department of Mineral Resources as a regulator, introduced the PDS I referred to earlier.

This PDS will save many accidents and save lives of many mineworkers. It is an undisputed fact that other industrial revolutions passed us by. There`s now no excuse for us to continue to be spectators in the big industrial revolution.

The University of Johannesburg has created a platform for all of us to participate and be partners in the journey of the 4IR. Our education system must be repositioned in order to equip workers and new workplace entrants. Entrepreneurs and society at large should explore how to benefit in this journey. Now is the time for us to be drivers of our economic development and other spheres of our life. Our participation should lead to indigenisation of the 4IR… it must have an African character. Amandla!

Frans Baleni is a member of the University of Johannesburg Council and a former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. He writes in his personal capacity.


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