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The 4IR and the Digital Divide in Developing Countries- The Case of South Africa.

Mbali Shamu is a guest writer for the Warwick Economics Summit, and is a Master of Economic Science Candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa


With the 1st industrial revolution came the mechanization of production using water and steam power, with the 2nd, electric power, and with the 3rd came the use of electronics and information technology to automate production (WEF, 2016). In the 21st century, the 4th industrial revolution, also dubbed the digital revolution, promises speed, efficiency, and greater value added to goods and services. Ultimately, it promises better standards of living and inspires the hope of a better future for all of humanity. Yet for developing countries, the 4th industrial revolution has been a double-edged sword.


On one end, advanced technology fosters and supports faster economic growth, while on the other end it leads to inevitable job losses in labour-intensive industries or areas of industries. For instance, 35% of all jobs in South Africa (SA) were at risk of total digital automation in 2019 (Africa.com, 2019). One solution to address the problem of unemployment due to digital automation is the re-skilling and upskilling of employees to increase their chances of being reabsorbed into the labour force. Another crucial aspect is increasing investment in human capital. Human capital is the knowledge, skills, and health that individuals invest in and accumulate throughout their lives, enabling them to realize their potential as productive members of society (World Bank, 2021). These are areas in which developed countries are ahead of developing countries.


Countries such as Sweden, Finland, German and Japan show high levels of adult problem-solving in digital environments (World Economic Forum, 2017) compared to other countries. The human-capital index in such countries averages to 0.8, compared to 0.4 in developing countries such as South Africa (Our World in Data, 2018). While a high human-capital index enables the labour force to utilize digitized machinery and adapt to fast-paced technological advancement, access to technology remains a crucial catalyst in the improvement of human capabilities (2007). Hence, those with access to technology have an advantage, not only in the sphere of employment, but also in the economic, social and education spheres than those without access.


The term ‘digital divide’ is used to refer to the gap between different socio-economic groups that have access to modern information and communications technology i.e. the ‘haves’, and those with restricted or no access at all i.e. the ‘have-nots’ (2005). This technology can be a basic cell phone, smart phone, personal computer and the internet.

With the dawn of Covid-19 and various national lockdowns introduced by governments all over the world came the new normal of working and studying from home. This transition may have been a relatively smooth one for the ‘haves’, but not so for the ‘have-nots’.

Has the global pandemic narrowed or further widened the digital divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in South Africa?


Let’s explore:


1. Access to devices

When the SA government began implementing its initial lockdown in March 2020, students across the country had to adapt to online learning. Recognising the digital divide that exists in the country and its potential detrimental impact on the academic year, institutions of higher learning introduced solutions to assist students with the transition. For instance, the University of the Witwatersrand, ranking 2nd in Africa, extended device loans to students without access to any devices. The institution issued device loans to just above 16% of its student population (WITS, 2020).

This solution ensured that students do not fall behind in their academic journey. However, a greater challenge remains that a significant proportion of the student population lies on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide and their efforts to invest in their human capital are being hit hard by the digital divide sword.


2. The cost of data

The cost of data in SA is another factor which further widens the digital divide. In the modern-day, a device without internet access is hardly useful. The cost of data in SA is ranked among the most expensive globally (Business Insider, 2020). It is also more expensive than most African countries, including Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest economy (WEF, 2019), while the African country with the least cost is Somalia (7th globally).


3. Electricity

While a device without internet access is hardly useful, a device without battery power is not at all useful. The provision of electricity is a challenge in SA, especially in rural areas. In addition, Load-Shedding continues to disrupt and restrict access to the internet and ultimately places many behind the digital discourse.

The 4th industrial revolution gives hope of a better future for humanity in value, efficiency and better standards of living. Given that technology is constantly advancing at an increasing rate, there is no better time than the present for the public and private sectors to work together to narrow the digital divide, especially in developing countries.


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