What does it take to be a leader in this 4IR century?

by Tshilidzi Marwala. Our fourth industrial revolution calls for new leadership, especially in Africa where politicism dominates.

by Tshilidzi Marwala. The 21st century is proving to offer technological advancements at an exponential rate. While the 20th century gave us aviation, nuclear technology, mass production and the electronic era; the 21st century has given us the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The 4IR is an era where technologies in the cyber, physical and biological spheres are increasingly converging. Technologies in the cyberspace include artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and the Internet of Things (IoT). Although these technologies were invented in the 20th century, they have become more effective in the 21st century. For example, AI was developed in the 1950s, and John McCarthy coined the term. Still, it was only recently when the availability of data became more widespread and computational power increased that it has found complex applications in society, economy and politics.

Blockchain technology, on the other hand, was invented in the early 1990s by Stuart Haber and Scott Stornetta. The blockchain network stores data across multiple computers, ensuring that the chain won’t collapse because a prospective hacker would have to attack the entire system, across many computers. IoT is an old concept, but the availability of fast internet and advanced sensors have accelerated its applications. Through the IoT, a watch can measure vital aspects of a person and directly inform a doctor if there is anything wrong with the health of the individual concerned. These developments in the 4IR call for a new type of leader.

Leadership in the 21st Century

It became apparent to me that, due to the complexity of problems that face humanity today, those who do not know should not lead. Historically, in South Africa, we have always been led by those who had more knowledge and education. For us to succeed as a nation in the 4IR, we must be able to provide our people with education in its totality. This means that those who are interested in science and technology should also be required to study human and social sciences. Likewise, those who are interested in human and social sciences should also be required to study science and technology. Why is knowledge a crucial tool for the 4IR? Socially, knowledge liberates us from superstitious thinking and equips us to tackle complex problems.

As we tackle the problems of unemployment, poverty and inequality, economic growth is crucial. It cannot be that the average Australian is 10 times richer and better educated than the average South African. As we modernise and reform our agriculture through land reform, we must have sufficient people who are knowledgeable in the political economy of farming to ensure continued food security and global competitiveness. As we tackle the problems of our shrinking industries, we need to understand issues of automation, technology and human capital to improve the quality of life of our people. Any collective knowledge gap in our understanding of technology or global economics, or our knowledge of human capital competency, will derail our ambition of creating a developed society in the 21st century.

Remove politicism from leadership

Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of Ghana, which was the first African country to attain independence, once said: ‘Seek ye first political kingdom, and all else shall be added unto you.’ Thus, he ushered in an Africa where politics became a fashion statement, adored by many and damned by few; a continent that is dominated by politics at the expense of all other vital factors such as the economy and technology. Today, some 60-odd years later, the nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of Ghana is $70 billion with a population of 31 million people. Now, compare this to Singapore’s nominal GDP of $392 billion, with a population of 5.7 million people. Singapore is even more prosperous than South Africa, which has a nominal GDP of $370 billion and 60 million people. At the time Nkrumah uttered those words, South Africa and Ghana were much more affluent than Singapore. It seems as though the ‘all else’ that Nkrumah promised did not follow.

The concept of politics dominating all spheres of our lives is called politicism. Because of the shrinking economic activity outside of the government, the South African economy is increasingly becoming centred around the state. If this trend continues, then the South African economy will increasingly shrink, and soon enough the capacity to afford the civil service will be compromised. This is because as the economy shrinks so does the tax base, which is the only source of revenue for the government.

Why is politicism not effective? Firstly, because an entity as complex as a nation-state requires multiple skills and capabilities to function. In many countries, the skills of political leadership are one-dimensional, producing people who think and talk alike. Any system, such as a country that is driven by a one-dimensional mindset, will always fail spectacularly. In finance, Harry Markowitz came up with a seemingly obvious concept called portfolio theory. Portfolio theory states that to minimise risk, you need to invest in many assets (a diverse portfolio) as opposed to one. This is akin to an old African proverb that states that ‘two heads are better than one’ in tackling a problem. Markowitz decorated this old idea with fancy mathematical concepts, which saw him win the Nobel Prize for Economics. Countries that work are those where leadership is distributed across many spheres of society. For a country to work, you need technologists who are operating at the top of their game. The impact of their work should change the lives of a multitude of people.

On 28 August 2020, Elon Musk, the South African born and Silicon Valley-based engineer who founded Tesla, unveiled a device that is inserted into the scalp of a person to read brain activity. The implications of this invention on real-time measuring of sugar levels, early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and brain tumours are significant. What people like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are doing is creating a culture of leadership on a substantial scale, influencing people at a considerable level. With politicism, we cannot grow the same technological leadership dimension that we see in the United States and China. This filters into South Africa’s ability to compete globally, resulting in deindustrialisation, job losses and economic contractions.

Another dimension of leadership that we lack as a result of politicism is in the arts. While the arts, whether theatre or painting or sculpting, look non-essential and ‘a nice to have’, they are incredibly crucial for establishing a creative culture that can spill over into technology, economy and society in general. It has been generally believed that leaders such as Steve Jobs were half artists and half technologists. When Jobs founded the company Apple with Steve Wozniak, the latter concentrated on technology while Jobs focused on the design, which requires competence in the arts. In fact, the look and feel aspect of Apple devices defines its products up to this day. This is because technological progress is a faster equaliser than aesthetic characteristics.

Extreme politicism quickly descends into corruption, as is the case in South Africa. If all economic activities around the state shrink, then the clamouring for access to the state becomes hypercompetitive. The fact that many people who gravitate towards the state are regulators or have direct and indirect control of the regulations makes the whole system easily fall prey to manipulation… Corruption suboptimally allocates resources away from the assets that are required for production and economic expansion.

Create a meritocratic country

What now for South Africa? We need to move towards building a meritocratic society rather than a politicised society. We need to invest seriously in education across the board. We need to develop a productive rather than a consumer economy. We need to diversify our leadership in terms of skills, race and gender. It is only through the ‘portfolio of skill sets’ at all levels of leadership in our country that we shall have the necessary capability to lead South Africa efficiently.


The above is an extract from the book, Leading in the 21st Century: The Call for a New Type of African Leader, a new book by Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg. Marwala has a PhD specialising in Artificial Intelligence and Engineering from the University of Cambridge and a postdoctoral fellowship at Imperial College (London). He is a Fellow of The World Academy of Sciences and a member of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). He has published 19 books on AI. This book is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers and is available online and at leading bookstores.


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