Having been displaced by “COVID-19”, “extreme social distancing” and “lockdown”, “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is a term you haven’t heard in a while. However, with lockdowns being eased, COVID-19 being better understood and managed, life returning to a semblance of normalcy and the need to rebuild economies becoming more urgent, that term is about to reclaim its usual spot in public rhetoric.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with “Fourth Industrial Revolution” because it merely indicates the ordinal position of a revolution that international agenda-setters believe will re-energise the world economy in the 21st century. However, close inspection reveals racist intent and thinking because all the revolutions in that lineage exclude African ones.
In the 1400s, there lived a metallurgical engineer par excellence called Morolong, who, on account of his business leadership, would found the present-day Barolong tribe. Working with metals was a culture that Kgosi Morolong was born into – which means that an industrial revolution pre-dated him. A similar revolution was taking place in another part of present-day Southern Africa. At a period of time when they were the richest tribe in the region, the Kalanga were producing gold purer than that which South Africa produces today. Based on what Tjako Mpulubusi, the former Director of the National Museum and Art Gallery says, there would have been a spiritual element to this purity: the gold was mined by pre-pubescent children and worked by elderly people who were no longer sexually active. The mining looks every bit like an industrial revolution. There is also credible scholarship that has people from West Africa trading with what is now the United States way before a Christopher Columbus fetched up on a Bahamas shore. West African societies had certainly undergone industrial revolution to have been able to make such treacherous sea voyages over and over again for centuries.
Nobody knows the ordinal position of the above-mentioned revolutions because mainstream academia is not at all concerned with any kind of cultural sophistication outside the west and scholarship that does so is shunned and starved of funding. Of late, the BBC has been airing a docu-series about pre-colonial cultural sophistication in Africa. Called “History of Africa” and presented by Zeinab Badawi, who is Sudanese-British, this series is revealing how highly sophisticated pre-colonial Africa was. During the interview of one episode, an Ethiopian scholar at Oxford University says that what happened with one ancient society in East Africa would be equivalent to the First Industrial Revolution in the west. It is highly likely that as the world obsesses over the west’s Fourth Industrial Revolution, some non-western societies have actually experienced revolutions of higher ordinal positions.
It is tragic that Botswana and Batswana (as indeed Africa and Africans) have embraced a term that invalidates that their history and cultural sophistication. In his 2019 state-of-the-nation address, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, waxed rhapsodic about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, using the term thrice. When he was still the Leader of the Opposition and used the bully pulpit provided by that position to the fullest, Duma Boko would also speak in glowing terms about this revolution. As a matter of fact, all other leaders periodically speak about it in the generic context that invalidates all industrial revolutions that Africa has had. The term has also been the theme of one too many conferences and newspaper editorials.
“Fourth Industrial Revolution” is actually one of the many English terms that have stealth purpose – to invalidate cultural sophistication of non-westerners. It is not uncommon to hear one say “I am not educated”, “S/he is not educated” and “My parents are not educated” or variations thereof. Even supposedly enlightened people say the same thing. In his profile, one now deceased University of Botswana lecturer stated that his parents were not educated. A typical herdboy can’t read and write but can look after cattle, sheep and goats, knows indigenous plants that he can use to treat sick animals, can track stray cattle using no more than their footprints, uses his deep knowledge of wildlife to live cheek by jowl with and snakes, can preserve different kinds of food and can also skin a dead animal and shape meat cuts. With that much knowledge, how is this person not educated? Simple: indigenous western education is the only kind of education that matters, indigenous African education doesn’t. “My parents are not educated” actually means that they don’t have western education, not that they are not educated. However, owing to the fact that anything of high value that is not western has to be invalidated, indigenous education is not education.
From this kind of thinking has resulted a fraudulent vocabulary of “first this, that or the other.” In Botswana today, there are Batswana who walk with a particularly energised swagger because they have been led to believe that they were the “first” professional in a particular field of study. We are very sorry to have to rain on their parade but that is not true – unless you want to invalidate indigenous cultural sophistication. Way before Batswana met Europeans, there were home-grown medical doctors, ophthalmologists, pediatricians, dentists, civil engineers, road engineers, chemical engineers, architects, millers, interior designers, legal experts, marine commandoes and all other types of professionals that their societies needed to survive and thrive. We just used different language: what Batswana called thobega, the English called orthopedic surgery and go laba was a medical procedure used in what the English called ophthalmology. Botswana could not have had the first metallurgical engineer in the 1990s or early 2000s when Kgosi Morolong, who lived in the 1400s, was not even the first such engineer.
On the whole, it is amazing how seemingly harmless words can actually be loaded with offence and deception. Take “world.” Mike Tyson was supposedly the “world heavyweight champion” but at the height of his career, wouldn’t even have won a single fight at cattlepost stokvels in Botswana that are patronised by raw-boned herdboys who can eat two loaves of bread and full chicken at one sitting but still complain bitterly about hunger. Generally, two thirds of world records have absolutely nothing to do with two thirds of the world.
As a neo-colonial tool that is perpetually deployed to invalidate Africans, the English language also anonymises. Back when she was US First Lady and possibly angling for a return to the White House, Hillary Clinton franchised a particular “African saying” into global public consciousness: It takes a whole village to raise a child. It is actually very common to hear people (Africans included) quote this or that “African saying.” Let’s accept there is such a thing as an African saying but only in order that we can ask the following question: Why is it that we never hear of a European or Asian saying? You can go a step farther and google “European saying” and see what comes up.
Africa is a continent of 54 countries and several thousand cultures. Which culture do those African sayings come from? To say there is such thing as an African saying is another way of saying that Africa is a country and to anonymise cultures from which those saying come is to invalidate those cultures. Anonymising is a form of invalidation and you anonymise that which you don’t care about. Lest we forget, Europe’s first act of love for Africa was putting it on the dinner table at the Berlin Conference and bringing the knives out.
The 5Ds Roadmap was an unmitigated disaster but the Ds still matter a great deal. In an Africa that is supposedly Rising, Africans are never going to have any Dignity if they embrace and help mainstream language that demeans them and denies their history of cultural sophistication. It is all very well to undertake all the innovation that the Fourth Industrial Revolution describes but fatally flawed to use that term.