South Africa’s massive jobs challenge: balancing automation and unemployment

 ·26 Apr 2019

Robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) could provide a welcome boost to service delivery and help reduce the ever-escalating costs of running the public service, says Lusanda Raphulu, partner at African law firm Bowmans.

The difficulty of course, would be dealing effectively and sensitively with the fears of trade unions and public servants that job losses could result, she said.

“Just recently, on 9 April 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the membership of the new 30-person Presidential Commission on the 4IR, which he himself will chair.

“The role of the commission is to ‘assist government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution’, according to a brief statement from the Presidency.

“Taxpayers will be watching the work of the commission with interest – the public sector wage bill, accounting for around 35% of public spending, is one of the highest in the world, proportionately,” she said.

Given the recent spate of service delivery protests, and the fact that public service delivery in South Africa is widely regarded as below par, the advances brought by the 4IR could be just what South Africa needs, Raphulu said.

Efficiency vs employment

One area where South Africa could definitely improve is the introduction of automation and AI which can perform routine, repetitive, dangerous or just plain dull tasks far faster and more efficiently than humans can, Raphulu said.

These technologies could also be put to good use in a host of other areas of public service, particularly those involving masses of paperwork and long queues of citizens waiting for service, she said.

“That would almost certainly result in at least some of the public servants doing these jobs today becoming superfluous,” said Raphulu.

“This is where the discussion becomes sensitive, involving two seemingly conflicting objectives – better service delivery and cost-cutting on the one hand, and on the other, the need to avoid further exacerbating high unemployment and antagonising organised labour.”

However, the government does not appear to believe this is an either-or situation, said Raphulu.

The minister of Public Service and Administration recently said that one of government’s strategies to reduce costs would be to replace retiring public servants with young recruits who would come in at lower levels, leading to a lower wage bill.

This, coupled with cost-savings from digital technologies and other avenues, should obviate the need for retrenchments, the thinking seems to be, she said.

“Government and the Presidential Commission on the 4IR are onto something good with exploiting how the 4IR can be of benefit to South Africa.

“The challenge is in balancing the pros with the (real or feared) cons. 4IR technology could significantly reshape the South African public service,” said Raphulu.

“Questions about how best to approach reskilling, retraining, redeployment, restructuring and yes, possible retrenchments, are crucial in this exciting and encouraging direction that is being taken.”

Read: How long before the robots take over in South Africa?

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