Lost jobs in the North can be tourism’s gain in SA

The meeting of the alliance political council that concluded on Monday offered depressing insight into the anachronistic preoccupations of the trade union and communist partners of the ANC.

Discussion centred on the survival of jobs in sunset industries and how to “reverse” the damage that has been done to state-owned monoliths.

Only one forward-looking topic was touted for the agenda of an upcoming alliance economic summit: the “fourth industrial revolution” and the “future of work”.

Revolutionary new technologies are causing concern around the world. Industrial jobs are already being lost, and there is a growing threat to many occupations in service industries.

The disruption caused by the technological revolution is likely to be greatest in developing countries. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim suggested in 2017 that, “two-thirds of all jobs that currently exist in developing countries will be wiped out by automation”. The bank has observed that, “the winners will be those who encourage skill-upgrading so that all can benefit from digital opportunities”.

Rather than focusing exclusively on education, however, our policy makers need to consider how to maximise the potentially positive impacts of automation.

Technological change will generate new and often unexpected forms of work. The most important of these, for which SA can begin to prepare now, will flow from a greater scale and variety of “tourism”.

The global tourist industry already embraces more than a billion travellers annually; SA receives around 10-million of these. This number has grown fast as a result of the emergence of new middle classes in developing countries such as China and India, an upswing of travel among western millennials, and population growth in Africa.

One by-product of technological advance is likely to be a huge scaling-up of such recreational travel. The fortunate citizens of wealthy countries are increasingly freed from mundane activities, and enjoy ever-easier access to cultural and leisure global opportunities.

Even more importantly, as automation continues to transform employment patterns, perhaps a third of the working age population of wealthy societies may find themselves unable to secure work at a living wage. There is currently a debate raging in the global North about how such displaced workers can be accommodated.

Although some political leaders have argued for the development of guaranteed work for all citizens, a more realistic proposal is the provision of basic income grants or longer periods of state-funded absence from the labour market.

In tandem with growing life expectancy, this change has the potential to bring about a massive increase in the number of visitors — many of whom may arrive in the guise of students, conservation volunteers or retiree “knowledge tourists”.

Rather than the 10 days that tourists spend in SA on average, they may spend long periods in low-and middle-income countries. Here basic incomes can stretch further, and unemployment can be recast as meaningful cultural engagement.

A major change in the mind-set of politicians and labour leaders will be needed if SA is to adjust to the changes that a tourist economy requires.

Successful tourist nations are obliged to endure some immediate humiliation and to abandon preconceptions about the nature of dignified labour.

Contemplate contemporary Britain: the theme park character of its towns and villages, the vulgarisation of its traditional leaders (or “royals”), and the repackaging and commodification of all aspects of its culture. A dose of cultural discomfort, however, is a small price to pay for what might ultimately be an increase in income and employment.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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