By Dr. Shirley Mahlase, Ph.D (University of Cambridge, UK) M.Ed (University of Birmingham, UK). University of the North (B.A. Paed & B.Ed). Managing Director: Mmakete Consultancy (Pty) Ltd.

The previous three industrial revolutions leave behind intergenerational, socio-political, economic, environmental, technological legacies in their structures, upon which the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is premised.  In considering the potential risks and benefits of the 4IR, we have to critically consider who were included and excluded in the previous revolutions, how the power-relations in these revolutions were gendered and raced and how the benefits, inequalities and legacies of these generations were shared. Worldwide, and specifically in the South African context, women participated and often led technological development during these three revolutions as mothers and as workers and their reproductive labour has gone unnoticed.  Not least, the benefits of these revolutions were not equally shared.

Though the United Nations had declared internet access as a basic human right in 2016, research shows that while two-thirds of the population worldwide have access to the internet, fewer do in Africa and South Asia. Access to the internet and to smartphones are furthermore gendered with females often excluded, or sharing devices (Pew Research Center, 2016). While not everyone is connected, everyone is affected (World Bank, 2016; Castells, 2008). In 20 nations, men are more likely than women to use the internet (Poushter, 2016). In South Africa 51% of the population is female and 49% male. The statistics on internet penetration usage suggests that out of an estimated population of 58.93 million, 56.3 % of the South African population are internet users in 2020 and that this share is projected to grow to 62.3 % in 2025 (Clement, 2020). However, the statistics are not disaggregated by gender and the urban-rural dichotomy is missing. Thus far technology is benefitting the rich and a few middle class women across the racial divide whilst the majority of women in rural and marginalized communities are left behind.

There is a plethora of reasons for the lack of access to internet by women including, for example, poor infrastructure, poverty (exacerbated by covid-19), high levels of corruption, expensive data, the lack of smart phones and the lack of computer skills amongst women and marginalized groups. There is, however, no legitimate reason why women should remain excluded from the 4IR, or take the lead in ensuring that the benefits of the 4IR accrue to all.

In considering the potential risks and challenges inherent in the 4IR, it is crucial that those who were and continue to be marginalised by technological development take the lead in framing the narratives and imaginaries informing the 4IR in the Global South. A strong ethical framework is needed in order to restore human dignity and address the existing digital inequality in order to transform the lives of women and marginalized communities.  This revolution has to be different. This revolution has to leave a different legacy than the preceding ones.

Dr. Shirley Mahlase, Ph.D (University of Cambridge, UK) M.Ed (University of Birmingham, UK). University of the North (B.A. Paed & B.Ed). Managing Director: Mmakete Consultancy (Pty) Ltd.