The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Highlighting the South African Skills Crisis

By petervannieuwe…, 28 October, 2017

24 October 2017

Authors: Jacques M. de Villiers[1]; Lynn L. Duke[2]; Peter J. Jansen van Nieuwenhuizen[3]


I.                   INTRODUCTION


One often hears that South Africa is part of the Knowledge Economy and that the country is on the verge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  A recent survey conducted by the Growth Institute highlights that the country has many obstacles to remove before it can claim to be a significant contributor to the Knowledge Economy (thus the Fourth Industrial Revolution).

The survey was a baseline to consider the broader context of education in South Africa.  Findings indicate that the education system may not prepare the South African youth to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  In addition, some support structures are absent, thus it will take a long time for the country to catch up with other economies in class that are better equipped to meet the demands of 4IR.

This article presents the findings of the Growth Institute’s survey



Three key factors were identified:

  • 86% of respondents believe that Government lacks the political will to achieve excellence levels needed to move towards 4IR
  • 87% believe that a mediocre schooling system must be re-engineered to meet the demands of 4IR
  • 98% believe the low focus on quality math and science results must be addressed

It is time that the Government (ruling party and opposition parties alike) stop enacting schoolyard spitting contests and focuses on the issues that really matter.

From an education perspective, the populist view that a Bachelor’s Pass (university exemption) is made up of 2 subjects at 50%, two subjects on 40%, two subjects on 30% and one subject in attendance, can no longer be the norm.  Matriculants already experience massive shocks when the tertiary education system demands a 50% average in all subjects as a pass mark.

Since 2008, there has been a downward trend in the Global Competitiveness Index.  The biggest shocks in the latest Index are:

  • Basic institutions moving from the 38th place to 76th since 2016/2017
  • The country’s overall competitiveness moved from 49th in 2016/2017 to 61st in 2017/2018
  • Secondary enrolment moved from 12th in 2016/2017 to 54th in 2017/2018
  • Technological readiness moved from 50th in 2016/2017 to 54th in 2017/2018
  • Innovation moved from 36th in 2016/2017 to 39th in 2017/2018

As far as Health and Primary education is concerned, South Africa was 122nd in 2008.  In 2016/2017, the country was in position 126, and in 2017/2018, it moved to 121st.  It remains to be seen whether a new upward has started or not.

The quality of the educational system moved from 138th in 2016/2017 to 114th in 2017/2018.  In addition, the quality of Mathematics and Science moved from 140th in 2016/2017 to 128th in 2017/2018.

The quality of Primary Education moved from 127th in 2016/2017 to 50th in 2017/2018.  Hopefully, this is the start of a new upward trend and its effects could be carried over in secondary education so that the Class of 2029/2030 has a greater tertiary readiness than is the case now.



  • The majority (92.31%) of respondents believe that foundation phase education needs an overhaul. The practice that learners are “sausage machined” through the foundation phase when not ready to move to the next phase, is a concern.
  • The importance of a quality primary education phase has been highlighted by 96.70% of respondents, whereas:
  • 89% thinks that secondary education must improve, and
  • 21% would like to see and improvement in tertiary education



The overwhelming majority (94.41%) of respondents believe that Government should be a bigger support role in preparing the economy for 4IR.



In the context of the Entrepreneurial University, a Triple Helix refers to the three main activities of academia, namely, teaching, research and the commercialisation of innovations.  Such a model is essential for universities to survive monetarily.  In the context of 4IR, a similar Triple Helix Model is essential.

The survey indicated that 96.70% of all respondents believe that there must be higher levels of cooperation between Government, Industry, and Academia to make 4IR possible.



Rote learning, in other words, the practice where learners have to memorise and regurgitate facts in assessments cannot be the answer to move towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution (97.80% of respondents).  New learning models should:

  • Focus on creativity (96.63% of respondents)
  • Introduce Systems Thinking concepts into all curricula (98.88% of respondents)
  • Focus on innopreneurship (89.89% of respondents)



Getting ready for 4IR will demand a holistic approach in which the improvement of education systems has to play an increasingly important role.  4IR demand independent, creative thinking and the ability to make connections “outside the box”.  Understanding the principles of Systems Thinking can no longer be regarded as mere glitter on a cake.  It will become and essential tool that must be taught from an early age.

In a newly proposed Triple Helix Model neither Government, nor Academia or Industry can sit in isolation.  Sustainable partnerships will have to be formed in which all parties to the New Triple Helix build new trust relationships.

Private training providers can no longer be viewed with suspicion.  It is time to realise that private training providers are capable of meeting more than half of all post-school training requirements in South Africa.  The fact that the Department of Higher Education considers private providers as important role-players is indeed encouraging.


[1] CEO, at the Growth Institute

[2] Dean at the Growth Institute

[3] CFO at the Growth Institute


Copyright: Portal Publishing (Pty)Ltd | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use
Skills Portal | Careers Portal | Jobs Portal | Bursaries Portal | Skills Universe
About us | Contact us
Portal PublishingPress Council