Africa

4IR OP-ED

The first three industrial revolutions stripped Africa bare – it’s hard to see why the fourth would be any different

The first three industrial revolutions stripped Africa bare – it’s hard to see why the fourth would be any different
The visionaries of a 4IR need to show how a supposed massive ‘convergence’ of technology can change the structural domination of Africa by the countries of the North, economically, politically and socially, says the writer. (Image: Adobe Stock)

Each one of the previous industrial revolutions had devastating consequences for Africa. Why should we expect that a 4th Industrial Revolution would benefit this continent and its people? The prophets of the ‘4IR’ are going to have to answer this.

A recent Daily Maverick exchange between Profs Tshilidzi Marwala and Saleem Badat puts the question of the possible benefits for society of the alleged Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) on the table. The striking thing about their exchange is that it could be one between esteemed professors sitting and writing in Europe (Marwala’s incidental references to UJ, ICASA and the CSIR notwithstanding). Nothing is said about the implications of the industrial revolution in and for Africa.

Covid-19 has forced us into the fast lane of the 4IR super-highway

Badat expresses the right scepticism, about how the “knowledge economy” and globalisation have turned every domain of social life into one of the distribution and consumption of commodities. He asks the right question: “the first three industrial revolutions have not created a just and humane world, so why do we believe that the 4IR will do any better?” To which it seems Marwala would want to answer that Badat is a non-believer, in the wrong “paradigm” – the paradigm of the sceptic, the pessimist. He that “knows”, and those that simply do not understand.

Now I don’t want to get into the debate here about the existence or otherwise of the 4IR (that is a matter of actual history, one way or another, not a semi-religious belief in a paradigm). What we all know – Marwala, Badat, ourselves – is that we live in an era in which the convergence of digitally networked information technologies have, since the 1970s, created a global socioeconomic order which has systematically marginalised and exploited the countries of the global South, and Africa in particular. 

So where is the question about Africa?

The Second Industrial Revolution (2IR) simply deepened the colonial domination of Africa by the European nations (despite the abolition of slavery). It is significant that historians conventionally date both the 2IR and the “age of imperialism” as the period from the 1860s to 1914. From the point of view of Africa, they are the same historical phenomenon.

Each one of the previous industrial revolutions had devastating consequences for Africa. The experience by Africans of the First Industrial Revolution (1IR) was one of the intensification and increased brutality of enslavement. The transatlantic slave trade has been described by historians as a “triangular trade” that was fundamental to the 1IR. African people were captured and sold on to ships and transported across the Atlantic to become slaves on plantations in the Americas. The cotton that they produced was transported across the Atlantic to the burgeoning textile factories in the north of England. Much of the cloth produced in these factories was then transported down the Atlantic coastline, as the most desired currency used by British traders to buy slaves in Africa.

The immiseration and dehumanisation of people was found at each apex of the triangle. We have long heard of the dark satanic mills of Manchester and other British cities, in which the emerging working classes – men, women and children – toiled for long hours in squalor and constant danger. We hear often of the brutalisation and disregard for the lives of slaves on the transportation ships and cotton plantations of southern America.

But we seldom hear of the regime of fear and the destruction of communities along the west and central African coasts, conducted by both British and local slave traders for over 300 years, and which was at its most intense from 1780 to 1850. All of these were part of the 1IR.

The cotton plantations of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas supplied more than 80% of the basic raw material required by the industrialisation of Britain. It follows that the dramatic increase in the transport of slaves across the Atlantic in the late 18th Century was a direct response to British demand for raw cotton. People were a primary commodity “extracted” from Africa in the 1IR. 

The Second Industrial Revolution (2IR) simply deepened the colonial domination of Africa by the European nations (despite the abolition of slavery). It is significant that historians conventionally date both the 2IR and the “age of imperialism” as the period from the 1860s to 1914. From the point of view of Africa, they are the same historical phenomenon.

By the 1880s, 80% of Africa remained under traditional and local control, but the colonial demand for African raw materials was growing. To “preempt conflicts that might lead to war”, the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885 was convened.

The socioeconomic prosperity of the “global industrial nexus” – the US, Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and some Scandinavian countries – now depended on raw materials found in remote places of the world. These burgeoning economies demanded more plant oils, metals, hardwoods, gold, diamonds and the like from Africa. And la belle époque – the European good life – craved exotic African things too, like peanuts, gum Arabic, ivory, coffee and diamonds: yes, everybody wanted diamonds! 

Then there were the commodities being grown in the colonial enclaves – rubber, tea, cocoa, tobacco, sugar. By the late 1800s, rubber (indigenous to the Amazon forests), was being grown on plantations in the “French Congo” and the “Belgian Congo”. Palm oil and cocoa were being grown commercially in west and central Africa. Sugar cane plantations had been established in South Africa and the African coastal islands. Copper (vital to the electricity industry) was being extracted from northern Rhodesia, and gold and diamonds from South Africa. All of these commodities were pretty much headed for Europe and the US.

This whole colonial economic system was systematised by the “scramble for Africa”, events that established the historical case to place imperialism at the economic centre of the 2IR.

By the 1880s, 80% of Africa remained under traditional and local control, but the colonial demand for African raw materials was growing. To “preempt conflicts that might lead to war”, the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885 was convened. The countries represented were “the global industrial nexus”, and others with economic interests in Africa. It is notable that the overwhelming content of the declaration signed at the conference is about “free trade” for the colonial powers in Africa. It declares freedom of navigation “for the merchant ships of all nations equally” of the Congo River (Article 13) and Niger River (Article 26), and a “free trade zone” stretching eastwards from the Congo Basin to the Indian Ocean (Article 1.3).

Of course, what happened then, almost before the ink of the signatories had dried, is that the colonial powers divvied up virtually the whole of Africa between them. Belgium, France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Portugal all acquired new colonies. The US and the Swedish-Norwegian Union achieved their strategic interest of giving the agreement “a commercial definition, as opposed to a geographical one”, in the opening up of free trade on the Congo and Niger rivers. 

The delegates in Berlin drew the future boundaries of Africa, and paid scant attention to Africa, or Africans. Their political map of Africa was a mishmash of rivers and straight lines that divided Africa up into 50 arbitrary colonies, with little in common with the indigenous cultures and regions of the continent. The Berlin Conference established imperialism in Africa, and the agreement that it reached was a central legal mechanism of the 2IR.

The dominant experience of most African countries in the Third Industrial Revolution (3IR) has been that of increasing socioeconomic marginalisation. Whether by Western offshoring, or onshoring back to automated factories, or simply by discarding the people and places “no longer considered valuable, even if they are still physically there” (as Manuel Castells puts it), the worldwide economic tendencies of the past 50 years have not been kind to Africa. The world economy has globalised, which is a phenomenon quite different from the expanses of the British empire in the 1IR, or the international colonial order of the 2IR.  

The information technology infrastructure that makes globalisation possible appeared in the late 20th century. It reaches across the whole planet, in networked computer and telecommunications systems, and transport systems that “shrink” space and time. It is generally accepted that this networking of digital technologies drove capitalism (now the only economic system on the planet) into a globalised economy in which productivity and competitiveness is based on information processing. 

These technological networks arose in the development of the internet, digital computers, satellite technology and integrated robotic automation in factories, which took place from the 1960s, and consolidated dramatically with the “switching on” of the world wide web in 1991. This allowed, indeed compelled, large corporations to trade outside national borders to maximise profit and reduce costs of production.

From the 1970s, the now “multinational” corporations began moving their factories “from the developed to the developing world”. Offshoring became an increasingly prevalent practice in response to the lure of low-cost labour in the poorer countries of the world. Among the earliest factories to move abroad en masse were low-skill assembly operations that migrated to Mexico and Asia in the 1980s. Many multinationals in the garment industry moved their manufacturing operations to “sweatshops” in countries like India, Bangladesh and Honduras.

This is a long history of deep exploitation and oppression. The visionaries of a 4IR cannot respond to the question this article poses simply by proclaiming the virtues of technology. They need to show us how a supposed massive “convergence” of technology can change the structural domination of Africa by the countries of the North, economically, politically and socially.

In the previous century, India topped the list of “attractive destinations” – meaning that its wages were the lowest that could be found. The Philippines, Russia and Brazil have been other favourites in the industry. However, trends after 2000 show that Africa is set for “recognition”, with Ethiopia, Ghana and Egypt emerging as major off-shoring destinations. Even China and India are these days looking to offshore their garment factories into Africa!

Workers at factories in Ethiopia, who make clothes for shopping mall favourites like H&M, Calvin Klein and Levi, are now the lowest-paid garment workers in the world, earning between R450 and R900 per month. While these wages are no doubt welcome in impoverished families, the 3IR economic trend to offshore into Africa shows that wage structures on the continent are in overall decline. 

Castells suggests that the most critical distinction of the period “is to be or not to be in the network”. Most African countries are operating as cheap labour reservoirs for the “global industrial nexus”, or being discarded by the global economy. Some, like South Africa and Nigeria, still stand a chance, if they are able to adapt to the global demands of the digital economy. This is the African experience of the 3IR.

So the question is, on the strength of Africa’s encounters with the three industrial revolutions, why should we expect that a 4th Industrial Revolution would benefit this continent and its people? The prophets of the “4IR” are going to have to answer this. They don’t get away with their usual platitudes.

An erstwhile chief technology advisor for a major South African IT company was recently quoted as saying, “while the previous industrial revolutions gave rise to certain imbalances, injustices and inequalities, the 4IR will give humanity the opportunity to correct some of these, as well as giving Africa an important chance to build globally competitive economies.” 

Really, sir? Slavery, colonialism and sweatshops are “certain” imbalances, “certain” inequalities, which a 4IR can correct? You will need to show us how.

This is a long history of deep exploitation and oppression. The visionaries of a 4IR cannot respond to the question this article poses simply by proclaiming the virtues of technology. They need to show us how a supposed massive “convergence” of technology can change the structural domination of Africa by the countries of the North, economically, politically and socially.

Otherwise, Tshilidzi Marwala’s “paradigm” will be in a state of crisis. DM

Dr Ian Moll is a lecturer in the Division of Educational Information Technology at the University of the Witwatersrand. His interests are in the psychology of learning and instructional design.

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.