Time to focus on Gross Domestic Benefit

Posted on June 17, 2018


Text first published in City Press (Sunday, June 17, 2018)

As matters now stand, a disproportionate number of South African youth — officially men and women between the ages of 15 and 24 — are destined to join the ranks of the world’s discarded people. That is the stark reality as a lack of foresight, inadequate planning and a shambles of a schooling system combine to condemn coming generations of workers to lives of insecurity, unemployment and poverty.

As the digital economy grows and spreads, only those individuals whose critical faculties have been encouraged, and who possess the necessary skills, will be able to understand, work within, or challenge the advancing reality. Most South African youth stand little chance as they have been betrayed by those in authority.

The powers should be duty-bound to try to ensure that the youth are as fully prepared as possible to face what the world will have to offer in the decades ahead. Especially at this time when the International Labour Organisation notes that there are already 71 million youth around the world who are neither in work, in training or studying.

Unless there is some radical change, these millions — among them South Africans — are the forerunners of what may turn out to be the discarded generations of the future, left behind by the march of technology. To paraphrase a Biblical analogy: the few who find work will be the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. But only for so long as such manual labour is done more cheaply than by machine.

This is the reality of the age of information and communications technology with which the government has yet to come fully to terms; a failure that extends beyond the education system and the future of local youth to the business of business.

And business is concerned about business. This was elegantly summarised in an open letter last week by Telkom group chief executive Sipho Maseko. Addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa and five leaders of opposition parties, Maseko pointed to the fact that the economy had shrunk by more than 2% in the first quarter.

This, he noted, should “jolt us into action” to “develop and distribute available resources to unlock benefit for all South Africans”. A “national conversation” should be held.

It is a call that should be supported across the board, especially if such a conversation covers all aspects of what the digital revolution means — and leads to policies that are implemented. Because this extends well beyond the dearth of skills and training, and to what Maseko later referred to, on national radio, as the “suicidal” decision to downgrade mathematics at schools.

These are valid points and they have been made in the past, often from the business sector and such international players as the World Bank. They all tend to stress that the digital economy “brings unparalleled efficiencies” globally, while never considering what this means for the working masses.

The efficiencies certainly require highly skilled personnel. But relatively few of them. And, unlike former economic crises, such as 1873 or 1929, the “long recession” the world is currently immersed in, has no prospects for new work for millions of semi, unskilled and skilled humans.

This makes the World Bank’s loudly touted aim to “eliminate extreme poverty and reduce inequality by 2030” — while promoting the system that creates such problems — seem, frankly, hypocritical. But, like much of business, this is probably the result of a blinkered vision that sees no alternative.

Better surely to focus of GDB — Gross Domestic Benefit — than on the constantly quoted GDP — Gross Domestic Product — that has seen wealth and production increase along with the rate of joblessness and misery.