Let's Think

Not seeing the wood for the trees in a changing world

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It is becoming extremely challenging to understand the world and the country we live in as it is presently undergoing fundamental changes on a multitude of fronts.

This week, on the global front, at the World Economic Forum (WEF), top economic and political leaders from around the world will wrestle with mapping out ways to deal with the impact of what has become known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR), driven by the internet of things (IoT) and technological innovation.

In the run-up to the WEF meeting in Davos, Switzerland, its founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, wrote about the challenges facing humanity due to the FIR. They included the following:

  • “… in the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production. This will give rise to a job market increasingly segregated into “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions; and
  • “Today’s decision-makers, however, are too often trapped in traditional, linear thinking, or too absorbed by the multiple crises demanding their attention, to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future.”

In our Final Word of this week we describe how prevailing circumstances across the globe cast both new US president, Donald Trump, on the far right of the political spectrum, and our own Julius Malema, on the far left in the same camp of ‘populists’ who are very prominent on the political scene in so many countries around the world.

Changing world order

At the same time, Trump’s formal take-over of the US-presidency this week is probably also marking the final start of “Cold War II” that has been in the making for some time.

It has also becoming increasingly clear now for some time that the unipolar, US dominated, world that prevailed since the late 1980s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall, is coming to an end.

That time also marked the ‘victory’ of capitalism as an economic system over socialism.

But then, there are increasingly signs that classical capitalism itself is now in trouble as became clear after the financial crisis at the end of the first decade of this century and as described by renowned economist Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the 21st Century.

That the existing social order is subject to ever-rising tensions, is highlighted by the latest Global Risk Report of the WEF, which warns that rising income inequality and societal polarisation could create further problems if urgent action isn’t taken.

One of the disturbing statistics quoted in this report, and which can in the main be extended to countries across the world (including South Africa), is that in the US, between 2009 and 2012, the incomes of the top 1% grew by more than 31%, compared to less than 0.5% for the remaining 99% of the population.

In the rest of this year there are not only elections in countries across the world, including some twenty in Africa and Italy in Europe, on which the pressure described here, will play an important role.

New news and media environment

One of the casualties of the ongoing FIR and the accompanying IoT is the traditional news media sector. The traditional print media houses have not yet all fully adapted to the onslaught from online platforms, and now, the very concept of ‘news’ and its delivery is subject to fundamental change caused by the explosion of social media platforms.

In an article on The Conversation website, professor Lyn Snodgrass of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University writes: “Social media is increasingly influencing the way we consume news and has already produced an epidemic of misinformation, hoaxes and hate-mongering …”

Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 26 countries shows that more than half of those sampled use social media as a news source.

She warns that “… social media, as the most effective purveyor of fake news and conspiracies, poses a serious threat to democracy.”

In South Africa, we have already seen how this ‘fake news’ can be misused by political leaders, government institutions and others in ‘false flag’ operations to tarnish opponents. In the US, as now comes to light, it has also been used to influence last year’s presidential election.

The domestic front

On the domestic front, not only do these global factors play a role, but a number of other transitions are also taking place.

For one, we are in the midst of the transition to a post-Zuma era, leading at times to important misunderstandings. For example, in the case of the ruling ANC’s 8 January statement, it was widely interpreted as coming from President Zuma. It is, however, important to understand that it should be interpreted and analysed as the stance of the party as an organisation. The message, as delivered, was an effort by the top leadership as a collective.

Since the municipal election of August last year, the country seems to be on its way to a coalition government and, it could arrive there as early as the 2019 national elections.


The world has become an extremely confusing and dangerous place.

Let’s hope and pray that Team South Africa at the WEF conference in Davos under the leadership of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, comes back with a determination to take a holistic and fresh look at how we manage the FIR.

The only choice, indeed. is to manage or be crushed by it.

But, finally, it is not a responsibility that just rests with government. Organised business, civil society organisations and special interests groups, on especially the economic front, should realise that ‘business as usual’ will just not do.

by Piet Coetzer

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