The ministers of education, training, science and technology in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are unanimous that interventions are needed to prepare the region's young people for digitisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0.

 

The ministers were participating in the Joint Meeting of SADC Ministers responsible for Education and Training and Science, Technology and Innovation (ET-STI), which took place in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal last week.

 

The theme for the meeting reflected the theme of South Africa's SADC chairship, "Partnering with the private sector in developing industry and regional value chains". This is in line with the SADC Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap (2015-2063), which regards education, skills development and STI as key to the implementation of industrialisation in the region.

 

The ministerial meeting was preceded by a round table discussion on "Digitisation and Industry 4.0". Industry 4.0 refers to automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It covers cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and cognitive computing.

 

Dr Bernie Fanaroff, director of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory and one of the round table panel of experts, said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had recently emphasised the importance of Industry 4.0.

 

Southern Africa could not afford to afford to be left out of Industry 4.0, Fanaroff said, as new global industries would soon be working with trillions of gigabytes of data. Big data, high performance computing, genome analysis, earth observation via satellites and drones, and 3D printing were among the key elements of Industry 4.0, and some SADC countries were already involved in these disciplines.

 

Fanaroff said that developments such as smart manufacturing, agro-processing, precision medicine involving nanotechnology, and smart cities were already having an impact in the region and across the continent.

 

Dr Laura Brewer from the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlighted internet connectivity as a key factor that was hampering digitisation in the region. She said the SADC had to put connectivity infrastructure in place in order to bridge the digital divide.

 

Brewer said the ILO programme Decent Jobs for Youth, which sought to tackle youth employment through effective, innovative and evidence-based interventions, had identified a number of priority areas for action. One of these areas was the nurturing of new digital skills, including robotics, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and the Internet of Things.

There was currently a skills mismatch in the region, Brewer argued, with young people learning things at schools, colleges and universities that were at odds with the needs of industry.

 

Prof. Nelson Torto, Executive Director of the African Academy of Sciences, echoed Dr Brewer's sentiments, saying the education system was stuck in the 1960s. It was no surprise if children were bored in the classroom, he said, as "the education system is slower than the people in it".

 

Maria do Rosário Bragança Sambo, Angola's Minister of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, said the governments of the region needed to establish a culture of digitisation, supported by adequate training.

 

Phineas Magagula, eSwatini's Minister of Education and Training, said the region needed to upgrade its digital infrastructure and integrate digital skills in the education system. "We are in the middle of a true revolution as it is changing economies, lives and industries, especially in manufacturing which is a central pillar in the SADC economy. We need to act quickly and embrace Industry 4.0," Magagula said.

 

Mozambique's Minister of Science and Technology, Jorge Nhambiu, reported that his country had witnessed accelerated growth in ICT, with mobile phone coverage expanding to more than 90% of the country. While this had created new opportunities to deliver services, it had also created a need for new policy and legal instruments.

 

Thesele Maseribane, Lesotho's Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, also highlighted the need for an updated legal framework to cover e‑commerce and other aspects of digitisation.

 

South Africa's Deputy Minister of Education, Enver Surty, said the Fourth Industrial Revolution was already part of our lives. Areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing were developing rapidly and could not be ignored.

 

South Africa was already heavily invested in these disciplines, Surty said, adding that the country was ready to share the benefits of this investment with its SADC neighbours.