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Lessons from Russia – Three elements nations must harness to avoid domination and exploitation


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

Investment in industry, innovation and infrastructure is key to our economic survival, and critical to alleviating poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment. Without this, we will repeat some of the missteps that can be seen in Russia’s economic trajectory.

As a young boy growing up in my rural home in Venda, Limpopo, my friends and I used to huddle in front of the TV to watch movies about the Vietnam War, the war that America lost but seems to always win in movies. In 1991, during my undergraduate studies in the US, I sat transfixed in front of the TV when the US invaded Iraq in the Gulf War. I vividly remember gasping in horror at the sight of aerial bombardments and ground attacks as planes and large army vehicles rolled into Iraq.

Wars are dangerous, and we must end them all.   

Flashes of those memories came hurtling back last week when Russia announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Explosions followed the announcement in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and other parts of the country, in what appeared to be a full-scale invasion. These developments have had the global community on tenterhooks, with fears of a full-scale war that has the potential to destabilise world peace.  

Whichever way you look at it, wars are too costly. All they do is bring pain and suffering, including to the countries claiming victory. There are no true winners in wars. As scholars Paul Collier and his fellow researchers indicated in their World Bank research paper, Breaking the Conflict Trap, “long-running conflicts cause enormous human suffering and are highly destructive. They lead to internal displacement and migration, destroy a country’s key infrastructure, and divert resources away from productive activities and investment in public health and education”. In this regard, we should all join the global community in calling for a cessation of hostilities and the start of negotiations on Russian security, the cessation of the expansion of Nato, and the restoration of the sovereignty of Ukraine. As United Nations secretary-general António Guterres said: “Give peace a chance.”

Whenever there is power asymmetry, there is always the threat of one country invading another. One would have hoped that the law of the jungle, where the principle of “eat or be eaten”, would not apply in international relations. In this particular conflict, power asymmetry exists because Russia is a nuclear, military and energy superpower, while Ukraine is not. The presence of nuclear power prevents even powerful countries such as the US from intervening militarily. In the context of the law of the jungle, what should nations do to prevent unfair domination and exploitation of one country by another?

There are three elements that nations should harness: investment in industry, innovation and infrastructure. This is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 9. Economic insecurity in a powerful nation is a recipe for conflict. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, it was expected that Eastern Europe, especially driven by Russia, would emerge as an economic superpower. The G7 was even expanded to include Russia in preparation for this, but ultimately the emergence of a new superpower did not materialise. What seems to have happened is that a widespread brain drain, particularly to the US, weakened the Russian economy.

Without the failure of the USSR, perhaps the company Google would not have existed because Sergey Brin, its co-founder, was born in Moscow. And Ethereum, the second-most valuable cryptocurrency after Bitcoin, and its associated smart contract capabilities, enabled by blockchain, could not have existed without Vatalik Buterin, also born in Russia. The very influential machine-learning algorithm, the support-vector machine, could not have existed if Vladimir Vapnik from the USSR had not invented it. The very effective method of making bad models useful in artificial intelligence (AI), the regularisation technique, was developed by Andrey Tikhonov, born in Moscow. The collapse of the USSR has been very beneficial to Western economies.

But in this period, what happened to Russia? Russia failed to industrialise beyond the military-industrial complex, unlike countries such as China and South Korea. As a result, despite its world-class scientific talent and infrastructure, its cars do not dominate our streets in the same way that American, Japanese, Korean and Chinese vehicles do. Despite its rich culture of innovation, there is no recognisable electronic brand from Russia that dominates our homes. Even though many of the thinkers in machine learning came from the USSR, there is no dominant global Russian version of Google, Microsoft or Tesla in our lives.

There are lessons in this for South Africa. We too have failed to industrialise. In fact, we have deindustrialised. The decline in the sector over the years has been attributed to various factors such as low demand, a lack of competitiveness, negligible economic growth and slow recovery from economic and political volatility. These, among other factors, have compounded to present little prospect of improved economic performance. The little industrialisation we have is very much stuck in the carbon-dominated Second Industrial Revolution. Like Russia, we have failed to transform the military-industrial complex into a civil-industrial complex. A successful example of a country that has done this is the US, where the military-initiated internet was transformed for civil use, spanning e-commerce and aspects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) as signified by companies such as Uber and Tesla. 

Like Russia, South Africa has experienced and continues to experience a significant brain drain, as exemplified by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, who was born here and educated at Pretoria Boys’ High and the University of Pretoria before he emigrated and began changing the world. We have to recalibrate our education system and develop viable strategies to stop this brain drain, which will serve only one purpose: to impoverish South Africa.

The second issue nations must focus on is innovation. Innovation requires a culture of inquiry that respects no age, gender or sex. The informality in American culture leads to teenagers questioning everything, which has led to people such as Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page founding huge multinationals when they were still in their early twenties. This is unprecedented and has not been seen at the same scale anywhere else in the world. For South Africa to create an innovation culture, we need multidisciplinary education and a culture of inquiry and informality within the innovation ecosystem. The National Advisory Council on Innovation is a body tasked with creating such a culture. We should hold it to account for what it has not achieved.

The third aspect is investment in infrastructure. This begins with the basic Second Industrial Revolution infrastructure that is at the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, such as water, energy, roads, housing and schools. Instead of wasting our resources on corruption, we need to invest in infrastructure for all our people. We cannot be on a developmental trajectory if many of our people still live in shacks without accessible, reliable and safe water, energy, roads, schools, etc.

To be clear, I am not advocating for a welfare state. When someone is given a government-subsidised house (RDP house), for example, there must be a task that the individual is assigned to fulfil, such as cleaning the streets, cutting the grass beside our roads or monitoring the safety of our communities.

It also includes the 4IR infrastructure such as reliable internet connectivity and computing infrastructure. The recent announcement by Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Khumbudzo Ntshavheni to offer every household internet data is an important step forward. My advice is that the data given should be limited to use in productive activities, such as online classes in machine learning rather than entertainment such as watching Netflix. The 4IR requires decisive leadership, including switching off analogue broadcasting to release spectrum and facilitating advanced digital technologies such as 5G. In this regard, Ntshavheni should be commended for resolving this long-outstanding issue. Now we need to move ahead to allocate spectrum to facilitate fast connectivity.

South Africa is struggling to enter the 21st century. But it is clear that we cannot afford to remain in the 20th century. As leaders of our society, we have no choice but to drag South Africa into the 21st century to prevent our people from falling prey to the laws of the jungle that govern poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment. To achieve this, we need to invest in industry, innovation and infrastructure. DM


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  • Bruce Sobey says:

    Good article, but you have ignored the elephant in the room. You say “Innovation requires a culture of inquiry that respects no age, gender or sex.” This should be expanded to ” … that respects no age, race, ethnicity, gender or sex”. A key reason why have so many of our top people like Elon Musk have left the country are because they, and their children, are discriminated against. Starlink cannot even launch in South Africa because they have to have 30% black ownership! What is the chance of Tesla building a factory here? How do the powers that be think we are to create employment if they continue to add rules that make it more difficult to operate and encourage skilled people to move to where they, and their families, get more reward.

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