The ones left behind

Last week, I cycled past a bus reading ‘5G – don’t get left behind’ on its back. This very bus drives through Cape Town’s city centre and its more affluent suburbs, but also transports many workers who come in from low-income areas. The message bothered me. It was there for to sell a product and thus not necessarily meant to convey a meaningful message. Still, it did echo assumptions that I find to be prominent in discussions on digital media and technological developments more broadly.

For one thing, there is the premise that there will be an improved humanity with an increasing access to information. Information flows tend to be almost religiously celebrated as having supreme value in and of themselves (also referred to as dataism), as being inherently progressive, and as levelling social playing fields.

Presenting technisation as a lofty ideal or a superior mode of being to achieve rather than something created from a particular vantage point effectively veils the authoritative regimes of the technological revolution we currently witness. This includes the cultures and values embedded in tech products. Very few women and people of colour are hired in tech industries, leading to the development of problematic algorithms.[1] Even more problematically, designs and codes are presented as neutral and gender- and colour-blind, much like the employment politics in bis tech.[2]

Adding to their opacity is the fact that tech products are often portrayed as independent actors. Power relations precipitating unequal access to resources that tie in with social, economic and educational developments are, consequently, neatly brushed under the discursive carpet. Framing access as a matter of capability and choice (reach it, grab it – or else get left behind) rather than something that forms part of a historical development supports the prioritisation of the needs of some while the experiences of others (those who cannot reach) are rendered even less visible and relevant for imagined futures.

In Cape Town, where the geographic, economic and social divisions of Apartheid are notoriously persistent, the ‘don’t get left behind’ paradigm seems particularly cynical. It foreshadows an even more unequal future and places the responsibility for ‘being left behind’ onto individuals unable, for example, to invest in 5G products. This form of exclusion severs itself from problematic histories of divisions and portrays the ones to come as both evitable (ones can make the “right” choices and catch up with tech) and as an inescapable future of insiders and outsiders – much like the narratives of numerous sci-fi plots.

Why sci-fi could be the secret weapon in China's soft-power arsenal |  Financial Times

It was throughout my studying Tinder that I grew increasingly intrigued by what lies behind the shiny, promising exteriors of technologies and artificial intelligence (AI). This is why I want to continue studying their impact on our well-being, social identities, politics, economies and demographic developments. Something I am very curious about is the role of algorithms in how we as their users come to understand ourselves, the world around us, and how we relate to others. I’m especially interested in the impacts of technologies on relationships of trust.

The more I read about AI more broadly, the more I find myself getting irritated with its overly positivistic representations. Especially when people like Amazon CO Jeff Bezos shamelessly flaunt their extraordinary wealth by taking a quick trip to space in a phallic-shaped rocket – and making some extra cash by selling spare seats to similarly wealthy people.

When products like the new Tesla humanoid robot named Optimus are developed and when Amazon’s AI assistant Alexa seems to have learned a little too much about your habits, it is useful to think back to Bezos’s phallus-shaped rocket – just as a memento of how the products we are sold as progressive are anything but neutral, nor are they necessarily designed for our needs. While there are well-intentioned inventions (especially in the medical field), AI and big tech should not be treated as inherently superior approaches to human sense-making but rather as complementing it if well-developed. This is because tech solutions are not “semi-sentient” as ultrarich AI-enthusiast Elon Musk promises his new human-replacement robot to be and they only have the “sense” of morality that has been encoded in them.

If left unchecked, the trajectory of dataism may very well be to the detriment of humanism. Thankfully, this is not a sci-fi movie or a zero-sum game. We are in a position in which we can still decide just how to handle these seemingly inevitable developments that are sprung on us from silicon-valley and co. We can contextualise and look at them as the political and socially momentous projects that they are. “Don’t get left behind” messages in this context should serve as a wake-up call. But instead of letting them induce panic and self-questioning as the advertisers appear to intend, we should treat it as a reminder to consider people at the margins and designing appropriate interventions instead of placing blame in the most inappropriate ways.


[1] For more on this, read D’ignazio, C. and Klein, L.F., 2020. Data feminism. MIT Press.

[2] See Noble, S.U., 2018. Algorithms of oppression. New York University Press.

Can “Education” solve South Africa’s high level of unemployment? (Part II)

South Africa’s unemployment rate has sky-rocketed to a staggering 30,1% in the first quarter of 2020. This means that of the roughly 24 000 000 people in our labour force, over 7 million are currently unemployed. This unwanted statistic puts South Africa in the Top 20 list of ‘Highest unemployment rates’ globally.

The long-held notion that improving the level of education (and subsequently the standard of education) will be a viable and trusted way to lower the unemployment rate is a logical red herring. In this post I hope to provide evidence to show why “education” (or lack thereof) in its current form, cannot be blamed for South Africa’s high unemployment rate.

Clarifying Terms and Definitions

Firstly, a clarification must be made in terms of this articles main subject, Education. Education as we know it in a South African context, is considered a public good. However, the notion of education as a public good is based firmly within an economic framework and although it is considered a human right, the track record of education as a human right in South Africa clearly indicates otherwise[1].

Noting, now, that education is an economic public good, has economic characteristics (where the end goal is profit making) and that this form of economic education has as its main objective the development of very specific people for very specific economic roles (which have specific purposes), we must differentiate it from education as a human right. Education as a human right is fundamentally distinct from education as an economic public good and our understanding of education in this economic context should not be confused with education as envisaged in the Freedom Charter of 1955.

Human Capital Theory

Any discussion on economic unemployment cannot be fruitful without understanding the fundamental idea of ‘Human Capital Theory’. For this discussion, I will use as a definitional base, Professor Gustafsson’s[2] illustration on Human Capital Theory (HCT) used in his Economics of Education Course at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. I will then expand on this illustration using a range of readings.

HCT[3] is a theory in Economics that sees a high value (both normative and economic) placed on human capital and education. In other words, it is a view that the more a person is educated, the higher a person’s income will be. Rose argues that this understanding has been peddled by Capitalist governments and International Organizations such as the World Bank (WB), despite there being ample evidence to the contrary.

Briefly defined, households calculate whether or not they should educate their child by looking at the potential income the child will provide from being educated. They then subtract the opportunity costs that will be foregone if the child is educated as well as the direct costs (such as books, tuition, transport, etc) of educating the child. This is known, in Economic circles, as the Private Rate of Return. It is this equation that drives the education of children in households and helps to decide whether or not education should be undertaken. The same philosophy lies behind broader National Educational Systems influenced by Neoliberalism; South Africa included. The term ‘Rate of Return’ in Education is one that is synonymous with Human Capital Theory. It is this term that modern governments use to justify various policies and programmes. The basic premise is to identify which group of people will allow the greatest economic return on the educational investment. A brief unpacking of this term follows.

Education systems across the globe develop skills (also called learning outcomes) in its learners. For example, the South African CAPS curriculum has a host of skills at the various exit points[4]. These skills have been developed in order for learners to contribute to the economy. The skill of understanding numerical literacy is vital when considering that Economists and Mathematicians must be able to count, understand complex equations and calculate multifariously. These skills are then ‘rated’ accordingly to ensure uniformity. Educational Compliance Authorities have therefore developed structures that ‘rate’ the skills/learning outcomes obtained. These help to bring a sense of national (and even international) unanimity. In South Africa, the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) was introduced in 2012, which saw all forms of education in the country integrated into “a single framework that facilitated access to, mobility and progression within, education, training and career paths”. Interestingly, South Africa’s NQF levels have been exported and are now being used throughout Africa, which underlines the growing importance of HCT in Neoliberal Globalized developing countries[5].

HCT focuses on the skills obtained and uses the qualification framework as a means of accountability. These skills that have been obtained, are what Human Capital Theorists say promotes productivity and propels the Economy forward. The reasoning behind this is logical: better and improved skills mean the possibility of higher production output. Higher Productivity means higher GDP. Better skills in a country also means better ways of problem-solving issues in the country. As a nation improves its ability and skills, it can earn higher incomes (across the board for all inhabitants), which generally also means improved social development.

The problem arises when governments and organizations such as the WB, begin using what is clearly an Economic term ‘Rates of Return’ to define Educational outcomes and monetarize something that cannot be monetarized, i.e. education as a human right. The WB has become the biggest educational investor across the globe and also the main instigator and ‘educational expert’ of implementing ‘Rates of Return’ within governments. South Africa has not been exempt from this phenomenon. Our educational landscape has changed dramatically with the implementation of Neoliberal policies, which has culminated with the hijacking of the term “education”. Education is no longer truly seen as a human right, but only as a means to an economic end. The Freedom Charter of 1955 has been forgotten and replaced with Verwoedian’ Market Policies.

What are the implications of the HCT for employment in South Africa?

The most important implication has been aptly summarised by Dr. Mike Van Graan who says,

“In some ways it [the way the State sees education] is quite Verwoerdian[6]… people are essentially cogs in a capitalist machine.”

This means that people are forced to conform into the economic mould that has prevailed in society. If a student does not show proficiency in any of the skills deemed as important by the state, he/she is deemed unfit and is either tossed out of the educational system or quickly regarded as dead weight (in an economic sense) and encouraged to apply for the meagre unemployment grant available by the State[7]. These people are what Prof. Badroodien refers to as ‘disposable youth’. Disposed of by society because they do not fit into the educational mould which ultimately has an economic purpose. Education in this economic sense can never solve our unemployment rate. 7 000 000 people are being tossed out of the system due to their unsuitability for the economy, or due to the fact that there are simply not enough jobs to go around.

What are some possible solutions?

Firstly, education should be more than just an economic public good. Basic Primary Education should be delivered as a fundamental human right of the highest quality to all learners. BottomUp theorizes this solution:

“ALL schools should be classified as “no-fee” schools, and that NO SCHOOLS should charge fees. This must also necessarily be linked to a revision to our tax system to raise the needed funds to improve school provisions across the board. To do so, is to reimagine schooling entirely and to establish a truly public system of education in South Africa, and this could include in-sourcing present SGB employed teachers and support staff (since they are needed).”

Undertaking such an endeavour will ensure that education is provided holistically as a human right to all learners. Finland undertook this costly approach in 1968 (when they were not in a strong financial position) and is now regarded as the best educational system globally.

Secondly, as Inglesi-Lotz and Gerlagh point out, government “should focus on creating an environment with policies that are supportive to economic growth”. One such policy, I suggest, would be to merge the manufacturing sector and the educational CAPS curriculum so that skill levels link directly into post-matric manufacturing jobs. This should be State-sponsored and State-run, with the sole intention of making use of ALL available human capital, irrespective of skills available. Linked to this idea would be the notion of making this paid “public service” mandatory for a minimum of two years. The experience and skills gained by the young labour force in these two years will, I believe, create an impetus and momentum to encourage entrepreneurship. This is education. Encouraging learners to excel without the notion of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or the idea that they must conform in to certain pre-defined moulds to succeed. The biggest problem is an economic one where there are not enough jobs to go around. This economic problem can ONLY be solved by an economic response and there therefore must be some intervention by government to create long lasting jobs[8].

Lastly, looking at the WB’s Education Strategy 2020 document  it is clear to see that the WB is all about return on investments, despite the jargon of providing education and eradicating inequality in the educational sphere. The biggest return on investment for the WB is no doubt Primary Education, and is subsequently the area that is targeted amongst developing countries for investment. I suggest, however, that primary education should be funded solely by the State and that the educational sphere that should be inundated with funding and investment (from private sources if need be) is the tertiary sector. It is this sector that can make the biggest contribution to society (in the form of inventions, business ideas, medical cures, engineering feats, etc), when handled correctly and equitably.

In summary, the education system needs to re-imagined and re-ordered so that the narrowly focused idea of HCT is not the driving force of education and the economy. Instead, an approach that sees education being treated as a basic human right (across the board and equitably) joined together with other sectors where everyone can contribute something while benefitting, will I believe yield better results and lower the unemployment rate.


[1] There are numerous schools across the country that still do not have basic access to water and sanitation, textbooks, proper classrooms, adequate educators, etc. This denotes a basic denial of human rights to these people.

[2] Gustafsson is Associate Professor at Wits and focuses on Economics in Education – https://www.ekon.sun.ac.za/staff/gustafsson-martin

[3] Human Capital Theory has its origins in Adam Smith’s work, but it was Jacob Mincer and Theodore Shultz who popularized the theory.

[4] The Learning outcomes of the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) can be found on multiple pages within the document/s itself – https://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/CurriculumAssessmentPolicyStatements(CAPS).aspx

[5] http://www.tourism.org.ng/national-vocational-qualifications-framework/

[6] Hendrik Verwoerd was the architect of apartheid and famously called for a controlled economic state in which only the white minority benefitted. See https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/hendrik-frensch-verwoerd

[7] The value of this grant has been included in the ‘Rate of Return’ calculation of education investment. It is therefore worth noting that it is currently cheaper for the government to continue paying out this meagre grant than to re-order the education system! Motive to continue with the current unequal and unjust system.

[8] This is evidenced by the fact that our streets are littered with educated people who are seen with street sign begging for jobs. See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36367703