The Future is a Paradox: Why Africa’s Leaders Must Master Contradiction

The Future is a Paradox: Why Africa’s Leaders Must Master Contradiction

Wendy Spalding, Director of Tuesday Consulting shares her insights.

Will a robot replace your job by 2020? Will your current job title even exist by say, 2025? For most workers today, the answers to these questions are frighteningly unclear. Indeed, the only certainty about the future world of work is that it is uncertain. And for both political and business leaders, it is difficult to decide whether to plan for a technology-driven utopia, or a robot-controlled dystopia. Either way, what is important to know is what kind of leadership is really required?

In Africa, we find ourselves on a continent where corruption, economic decline and inequality are an ever-present reality, yet we also find ourselves operating in a world where Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and a swiftly changing future are upon us. African leaders, and specifically South Africa leaders, must be able to manage the contradiction that we now find ourselves in. We need leaders who can acknowledge, understand and manage this paradox by steering organisations to think about their larger purpose – and balance the sharp polarities that exist.

Unfortunately for Africa, there are regions across the continent where many people still do not have access to electricity (2nd Industrial Revolution) or the internet (3rd Industrial Revolution), and both are essential if Africa is to leapfrog and participate in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Arguably, the biggest concern is that if leaders push ahead without fixing basic infrastructure and services, they will amplify the ever-widening inequality gap — which poses a massive risk to growth and progression. Again, the paradox must be acknowledged and managed by leaders across every sphere.

SA’s Leadership Challenge

Today, the unemployment rate in Africa’s most industrialized economy is startlingly high (27.2%). According to the IMF, the per-capita economic growth in South Africa has turned negative, and income inequality is among the highest globally.

Worryingly, a recent report from The Economist has asserted that the countries most at risk of job losses as the result of AI and automation are middle-income countries with significant manufacturing capacity. Unsurprisingly, South Africa ranked 22 out of 25 countries in order of preparedness for the coming changes of automation and robotics (South Korea ranked first, Germany second).

Re-Imagining Work

To begin with, a happy marriage between humans and machines is critical. As in a traditional marriage this requires connection, communication, collaboration, learning and the ability to change. Workforces need to adapt to new realities; employers need to invest (the lobola) and scale up in training and re-skilling programmes that enable the future of work to be re-imagined. Notably, it is predicted that many jobs will become more strategic in nature, providing meaningful and ‘satisfying’ work as machines begin to automate the more mundane tasks. Leaders must recognise this opportunity and invest in training that prepares the emerging workforce for more strategic, innovative and inherently creative roles.

Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple recommends: “The more technologically advanced our society becomes, the more we need to go back to the basic fundamentals of human communication.”

Harnessing African Growth

Looking further beyond the borders of South Africa, leaders have an opportunity to harness a fast-growing population and leapfrog ahead to the technology revolution. According to the African Union’s Agenda 2063 report, 25% of the world’s population will be African by 2050. The big question is: How do we ensure a demographic dividend from the rapidly expanding population numbers? Without doubt, visionary leadership is required to influence and impact economic productivity, progression and innovation.

“Africa has significant assets for addressing its issues: a young and enterprising population, regions undergoing fundamental change with growth in the countryside and rapid urbanisation, considerable natural resources, dynamic economies, rich ecosystems, and a solid diaspora,” stated Victor Harison, Commissioner of Economic Affairs of the AUC, while launching the Agenda 2063 report. “However, far too often, public policies have failed to leverage these assets effectively. The implementation of the reform programme as set out in Agenda 2063 requires an increase in government capacities, greater responsibility, transparency, co-ordination and the promotion of positive institutional action.”

Leading with Local Social Conscience

Looking ahead, we believe that purposeful leadership with a strong Local Social Conscience is what’s needed right now. Leaders have a responsibility to stand up and challenge South Africa’s governance structures, eradicate corruption, ensure Foreign Direct Investment and prioritise education. Whilst we commend the efforts of Business Leadership South Africa who have “increased its engagements with, and support for, civil society around shared principles”, why are leaders like Magda Wierzycka, CEO of Sygnia, and Vytjie Mentor, former ANC MP, often sole voices when speaking out against state capture? South Africa’s leadership should encourage and promote more initiatives like Lead SA.

In short, the primary challenge for South Africa’s leaders is to manage the paradox of our current social, economic and governance challenges whilst surging ahead and taking advantage of the opportunities that the 4th Industrial Revolution present. This requires the ability to think beyond one’s own personal and organisational objectives, and to understand the potential of working together across the continent.