A recent Nedbank Leadership Dialogue in partnership with Financial Mail Essentials put the spotlight on digital empowerment and inclusive growth. The primary objective of the dialogue was to stimulate conversation around inclusive business models that speak to both digital growth and empowerment while at the same time alleviating poverty within communities.

We’re living in a period of rapid and intense change characterised by disruptive innovation, pointed out Mfundo Nkuhlu, COO of Nedbank. Both the world of work and the nature of work are changing, requiring that workers are upskilled and reskilled.

He said SA needs leadership that has integrity, is focused on service and on creating policy certainty in order to make the country more attractive to investment. “The digital economy provides opportunities for exponential leaps. We need to address the fiscal challenges facing SA and crack the growth strategy if we hope to have the necessary resources to fulfil our growth ambitions,” he said, adding that to survive in the future requires an investment into new business models.

That SA faces a fiscal crisis is not in any doubt, said economist Thabi Leoka. The cost of servicing debt will become unsustainable. Added to this state owned enterprises continue to pose a huge risk to the economy. Treasury is not addressing the issue adequately with the result that SA is likely to face further downgrades. However, while this will see significant outflows of capital from the country, this might be the true catalyst for change, she said.

Leoka added that the high cost of data in SA is making it harder for citizens to transact. Spectrum could be a game changer and the one thing that could potentially change the structure of the economy. Pointing out that digital innovations have led to job losses, she said an inter-generational mix is required to address the challenges facing the country.

Busi Mavuso, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, said SA risked becoming irrelevant without even realising it. Labour rigidity is delaying or dissuading investment. “The world is moving at a rapid pace and we need to be moving fast just to keep pace, let alone get ahead.”

She added that many of our current problems in SA are the result of our own short-sightedness, pointing out that SA needs to think longer-term. The sooner SA addressed the prevailing digital divide the better, said Mavuso, both in order to ensure the country is more competitive and to catapult those left behind.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is not a tidal wave that’s due to hit at some point in the future but is something we’re already living in. “We’re not subject to 4IR, we are the 4IR,” said Dr Pravesh Ranchod, a director at Railab, adding that he sees it as both a threat and an opportunity. Key, he said, was to modify and re-structure society to suit the future economy. However, he stressed that while technology is important, the provision of basic infrastructure has to be the bigger priority.

One of the dangers of not catching up quickly is that monopolies form and SA misses out on an opportunity to own a share of this market, said Ranchod. “In a traditional economy there are a lot of natural protectionisms in place which don’t exist in the digital economy. Think of a platform like Facebook where all revenue leaves the country.”

SA urgently needs to address its problems rather than “kicking the can down the road”, said Bongani Chinkanda, CEO of HDI Youth Consultancy, adding that SA has to become more competitive while its leaders need to practice intentional leadership. Instead of placating his party, he said President Ramaphosa needs to make some hard decisions.

Puseletso Radebe, a 22-year old graduate, pointed out that 4IR won’t work in conjunction with our current economic model. In order to move ahead, she said, SA needs to disrupt itself.

The panellists agreed that there needs to be a greater degree of social accountability, policy certainty and that the country needs to become an easier place to do business.