[WSMDiscuss] China and SA too... and as for your "fibrehood"... ? Re: [social-movements] India Targets Climate Activists With the Help of Big Tech (Naomi Klein)

Patrick Bond pbond at mail.ngo.za
Sun Feb 28 11:22:02 CET 2021

On 2/28/2021 2:29 AM, Jai Sen wrote:
> https://theintercept.com/2021/02/27/india-climate-activists-twitter-google-facebook/ 
> <https://theintercept.com/2021/02/27/india-climate-activists-twitter-google-facebook/> 
> ... What she does in this article is to connect some big dots that 
> there has been much less talk about, as yet : Of the collusion of big 
> social media and information corporations with an increasingly 
> authoritarian – and, it seems, insecure – state, in their own drive 
> for market dominance...

That's very helpful, thanks much, Jai. Naomi Klein remains one of the 
most prescient analysts - and most effective popular educators - we've 
ever had on the left. Thank goodness for her excellent platforms, reach 
and initiative.

By coincidence, I've been working on a chapter for Univ of Johannesburg 
sociologist Trevor Ngwane's new book contesting the 4th Industrial 
Revolution, addressing some similar dangers in China and South Africa 
that we're picking up. This is a superficial scan, and there's much more 
coming, when I get into the detailed resistance - shall we say, the 4th 
Industrial /counter-/Revolutionary strategies and tactics now being 
innovated by SA's social movements - based not on rejection of 
technology but its /socialisation. /If I've made mistakes, please alert 
me; it was due a couple of days ago and I must finish up quickly...


*The 4IR, from sociological critique to social resistance *

By Patrick Bond



The university is a critical site of enquiry into a 4^th Industrial 
Revolution that has been accompanied by quite wild, unrigorous and 
partisan claims. In some cases, these are associated with 
self-interested business elites, stretching from Davos, Switzerland to 
the main South African cities where readers of the /Independent /chain 
of newspapers witnessed a barrage of 4IR propaganda since 2017, as 
explored in more detail below.


The two core areas of 4IR application that have gripped South Africa are 
investments in computer technology, and the mix of Surveillance and Big 
Data whose abuses range from social media manipulation to e-tolling to 
financial inclusion to bulk surveillance. The evidence began to mount by 
the late 2010s, as South African social media was infiltrated by “bot 
armies” arranged by Bell Pottinger and the Gupta brothers’ in 2016-17 
(trying to achieve Cambridge Analytica’s prowess in Britain, the U.S. 
and Brazil). During the 2010s, the Gauteng provincial government's 
e-tolling and SA Social Security Agency welfare distribution systems 
became subjects of citizen rage, because of inappropriately privatised 
and commodified processes backed by advanced algorithmic and 
sophisticated surveillance techniques. These were deployed by Kapsch 
Trafficom - an Austrian electronic toll collection company - and Net1 
Cash Paymaster Services (itself backed by its main investor, the World 
Bank), but as we see later, these multinational corporations were no 
match for South African activists.

Throughout, there were major commitments by the state and capital to 
advance 4IR technology. There is no denying that within the South 
African economy during the 2010s, a dramatic increase occurred in 
computer-related investment (an average of nearly 15 percent annual 
growth) as well as software (6 percent annually). These categories far 
outpaced other sectors with net positive fixed investment of at least an 
average 2 percent annual growth: general research and development, 
transport equipment and construction (Bond 2022). Information Technology 
dominated all other investments, as the 4th Industrial Revolution began 
to take off, as claimed by proponents.

Similar investment patterns were found elsewhere; however, it was not 
just a quantitative phenomenon, but a qualitative set of investments 
that Davos-based World Economic Forum (WEF) founder Klaus Schwab (2017) 
declared would be unlike anything humankind has ever experienced:

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will 
fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In 
its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike 
anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how 
it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be 
integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global 
polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society.

The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize 
production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. 
The Third used electronics and information technology to automate 
production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, 
the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the 
last century. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is 
blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

This easy-to-comprehend – albeit technically sometimes dubious – framing 
allowed a few international and South African businesses to continually 
amplify the 4IR message and accompanying pro-corporate ideology. Schwab 
initially drove this agenda in Africa in May 2016, at a Kigali 
WEF-Africa summit. The theme was revealing: “Connecting 
/Africa's///Resources through Digital Transformation.” A year later in 
Durban, this was matched and even exceeded by Schwab’s main local 
parrot: Iqbal Survé, the /Independent /newspaper chain proprietor, along 
with several important allies. They drew upon the WEF’s mainstream 
credibility, as a long queue of notables from the continent’s government 
leaderships, multinational corporate executives and African 
entrepreneurs paraded into the Durban International Convention Centre. 
Outside, in a march from City Hall to the U.S. Consulate to the 
Convention Centre, civil society protesters rejected the WEF and all it 
represented (Bond 2017).

And in a similar spirit just over a year later, a new platform for 4IR 
promotion was constructed via the Brazil-Russia-India China-South Africa 
(BRICS) bloc, which chose the Sandton Convention Centre for the July 
2018 Johannesburg Summit hosted by newly-installed President Cyril 
Ramaphosa (four months earlier he'd overthrown Jacob Zuma in a palace 
coup). At this point, a BRICS Academic Forum and BRICS Think Tank 
network gave yet more credibility to the bloc and to its 4IR advocates. 
But by far the most overblown input was the BRICS Business Council, 
especially two of the most ambitious but ultimately self-destructive 4IR 
boosters, Survé and then Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama, whose work we 
consider below among other high-profile South Africans (including the 
much more circumspect social exile, Elon Musk).


*“Inclusion,” rejection or socialisation of the 4IR?*


Schwab works internationally based in one of the world’s richest 
countries, but believes the poorest continent is well poised to take 
advantage of the 4IR, become more integrated within the world economy 
through technological advances, and resume the earlier “Africa Rising” 
narrative. Through development of digital skills, the world's outmoded 
industries could be digitally disrupted. With technology diffused and 
democratised through Public Private Partnerships, the 4IR offers a 
potentially powerful lever for positive change throughout Africa, Schwab 
insists. Although the 4IR was welcomed by state and corporate elites in 
Kigali and Durban in 2016-17, the WEF-Africa summit in Cape Town in 
September 2019 suffered its own distinct problems and protests: 
simultaneously, three factors - economic recession, a new wave of 
xenophobia and terrible gender-based violence incidents - left the host, 
Ramaphosa, humiliated (Bond 2021).

The WEF’s 4IR inclusionary-economics pitch was enticing but given the 
extreme inequalities on display – more glaringly visible than in other 
WEF hosting locales – the African summits were unconvincing. Typical 
were pronouncements from South Africa’s Department of Trade and 
Industry, whose leader prior to retirement in 2019 was Rob Davies. A 
sophisticated intellectual with a PhD in Political Studies from the 
University of Sussex, Davies’ Poulantzian version of South African 
Marxist historiography generated the seminal critical study of how a 
white labour aristocracy emerged a century earlier. After imbibing 
rhetoric from the 2016 WEF, Davies (2016) agreed that the continent 
needed to 4IR-industrialise:

All of this is happening in the context of major technological changes 
like robotics, artificial intelligence, internet of things and all kinds 
of digitised processes that are coming in. And they have, as I can see 
it, created an enormous potential for use of new devices and new 
technologies to solve a number of problems that have bedeviled 
development up to now.

However, in what would become a more commonly-articulated statement 
along these lines, Davies raised this concern:

The theme of inclusive growth is fundamental. If we don’t have any 
inclusivity, we are already seeing in the world now the adoption of 
these new technologies, in the context of winner-takes-all markets 
innovators of technology win and those who are second and third get 
nothing, and that goes with huge increases in inequality around the 
globe and within countries.

In contrast, Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama, prior to being fired by his 
board for corruption in late 2018, had in February that year offered no 
qualms about the 4IR, which in a /Business Report /op-ed article he termed:

the defining zeitgeist of our nascent century. It promises a fusion of 
technologies poised to disrupt almost all industries and transform 
systems of production, management and governance. Dizzyingly rapid 
advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and computing 
are fundamentally changing the way we both work and live. Disruptive 
innovation has become a new buzzword – and with good reason. It is 
innovation that creates new markets, displacing established 
market-leading firms, products and alliances. We have seen this with 
Uber, Airbnb and, of course, social media.


But the greatest threat to undo the potential of the 4IR, everyone began 
to mention, was South Africa’s enormous “digital divide.” In January 
2019, Maria Ramos – then head of Absa Bank and formerly Transnet’s CEO 
and the top Treasury Department official – took the stage at the World 
Economic Forum, and simultaneously published her remarks in the Sunday 
newspaper /City Press/. As Ramos (2019) explained,

While President Ramaphosa, Professor [Tshilidzi] Marwala of the 
University of Johannesburg and others have on numerous occasions spoken 
on the4IR, we will be left behind if we do not work together to fashion 
urgent solutions for our basic education system. This is so that the 
majority of our learners are adequately prepared for a digital future. 
This is not just about providing tablets to learners but also about 
affordable or free internet access, adequately trained teachers and a 
curriculum that accommodates a radically different future to what we 
currently imagine. It is precisely because these take time to plan, 
develop and provide resources for that we have to start our work now – 
an endeavour that needs organized business to partner with and provide 
support to the government, schools and other actors in the education 
space. We have to develop the capacity to normalize coding, robotics, 
data analytics and artificial intelligence, among others instead of 
leaving this to large companies that have the resources to do this or to 
source experts globally. It is key to South Africa’s ability to compete 
globally in the near future.

If Ramos had been serious about drawing poor students into the 
globally-competitive economy, that would have been evident during the 
2020 lockdown which closed schools and universities. Her bank and other 
elites would have helped ensure free “lifeline” access to data – given 
South Africa’s oligopolistic ICT structure, which results in 
communication and data costs at the high end of the world’s tech 
industries – since use of the internet commons is such an obvious 
entryway to the 4IR. But there was no such move to make data free, aside 
from university students and the leftist Right2Know Coalition. Their 
calls certainly weren’t given support by the country’s business elites – 
themselves ranked in 2020 as the second most culpable of economic crime 
and corruption (PwC 2020) – in the world’s most unequal society.

Ramos’ speech noted regretfully that the year before, 2017, South Africa 
had fallen from 62 to 67 out of 140 in theWEF /Global Competitiveness 
Report. /That document assesses ICT systems and skills, among scores of 
other criteria. While these sorts of international rankings are 
pernicious for many reasons, what goes into them is indeed suggestive of 
national priorities. South Africa’s strongest comparative advantage for 
4IR competitiveness is mobile cellular telephone subscriptions per 
person, in which South Africa ranked 10th in the world in the 2019 WEF 
(2019) survey. The only other area where South Africa ranks within the 
top 40 countries is the extent to which businesses train their staff. 
Most other such rankings are unimpressive: 126^th in the population’s 
digital skills; 119^th in the quality of vocational training; 109^th in 
pupil to teacher ratio in primary education; and 104^th in fixed 
broadband internet subscriptions per person. These are areas where South 
Africa desperately needs to improve, if indeed competitiveness is the 

A clear example of the pernicious effects of competitive rankings is to 
be found in South African schools which prepare students for their life 
in the world and their role in the economy. In a typical year, 2007, 
about a million students entered primary schools, but by the time they 
reached 12th grade in 2018, the full-time students were reduced to just 
51 percent of those who had started. When 78 percent of those passed 
matric, this was regarded as an important accomplishment. However, 
considering the original one million children, the final pass rate was 
only 40 percent. And most of those who dropped out, did so in the 10th 
and 11th grades. This technique is sometimes described as “culling” 
those students who might not make it through the 12^th grade, so that 
each school’s pass rate would increase, to stand it in better stead in 
competitiveness rankings even in public secondary schools. The Education 
Department has denied this charge of culling, and argues that reasons 
students drop out of schools include substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, 
death, attending alternative educational institutions, employment, 
criminality and frustration with continued grade repetition (Business 
Tech 2017, Macupe 2020).

Regardless of intent, and notwithstanding weaker students dropping out, 
in 2015 the WEF (2015) rated South Africa’s science and mathematics 
education as the worst of 140 countries, and overall educational quality 
was 138^th . Education researcher Nicholas Spaull (2018) remarked, “with 
the exception of a wealthy minority, most South African pupils cannot 
read, write and compute at grade-appropriate levels, with large 
proportions being functionally illiterate and innumerate.”The Treasury 
official who at that time was responsible for funding the schools, 
Deputy Director General Andrew Donaldson (2014), had to concede this 
harsh reality: “In areas such as education, health care and urban 
transport, service provision tends to evolve in differentiated ways […] 
the result is a fragmented, unequal structure in which the allocation of 
resources and the quality of services diverge.” Combined with 
semi-privatised systems, such public spending, he admitted, “entrenches 
inequality between rich and poor.”

The racial component of class differentiation is always evident; when it 
came to tertiary education, access by the majority Black African 
population actually worsened in the years immediately after apartheid. 
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2010: 248) 
observed how, “In 2008, only 1.4 percent of working-age Africans held a 
[university] degree, compared to almost 20 percent of working-age 
Whites. This proportion for Africans has hardly increased since 1993, 
while the proportion for Whites has grown by 5.4 percent.”

In short, the 4IR’s reforming role, towards a more inclusive local and 
global economy, would appear to have little or no relevance to all but 
the wealthy minority. For promoters of the 4IR, it must have appeared 
that the only viable strategy, in this context, would be simply to ramp 
up the hype. The main force responsible by the late 2010s was a 
newspaper chain owned by a charismatic, ambitious 4IR entrepreneur, 
Iqbal Survé, but his failure reveals a great deal about the limits of 
pushing rhetoric far beyond the scope of reality.


*The revealing case of Iqbal Survé’s Sagarmatha and BRICS Business Council*


The chairperson of the five-member BRICS South African Business Council 
was, in 2017-18, Survé, also serving as board chair and main owner of 
the /Independent Group /newspapers. Using that base plus online shopping 
firm Loot and the controversial Ayo IT service firm which 
(illegitimately) received R4.3 billion in civil servants’ retirement 
investments, Survé attempted, in April 2018, to launch a new firm on the 
Johannesburg Stock Exchange: Sagarmatha. Its IT wing, Sagarmatha 
Technologies, was briefly run in 2017-18 by a Canadian described by 
/Business Report /as a “visionary leader” and “investor guru,” Paul 
Lamontagne. He declared it the first “Silicon Africa” company: 
"Sagarmatha’s business model is agile, scalable, integrated and able to 
drive the marginal cost trend of the integrated businesses towards 
zero, using our platform. Through international partnerships we are 
confident that Sagarmatha’s global audience reach will exceed more than 
one billion people and companies by 2020."

The name Sagarmatha is Nepalese (combining ‘sky’ and ‘head’), and refers 
to Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. The firm’s 
ambitions were indeed lofty. Journalists looked deeper into Sagarmatha, 
including one of Survé’s competitors, /Business Insider/, whose reporter 
Phillip de Wet discovered “three weird things” on Sagarmatha’s agenda:

1.It wants to sell its customers’ genetic information. Sagarmatha told 
investors it plans to expand into a long list of fields. One of those is 
personal genetics, analysing the DNA of its customers to give them 
personalised information on fitness and nutrition. Then it wants to sell 
that information… That is on top of its plans to “develop consumer 
intelligence that can be sold on.” It wants to combine voice recognition 
with neuro-linguistic programming... One potential acquisition is “a 
leader in voice biometrics”, which allows people to be identified 
through only their voice. The company also has an artificial 
intelligence solution that “combines best-in-class speech, 
neuro-linguistic programming and voice biometric technologies into a 
unified multi-engine platform”…

2.One of its subsidiaries owns “a video sharing site and app similar in 
many respects to YouTube”, Sagarmatha told its investors – Video360. The 
day of its parent company’s listing, Video360 had not had a new video 
uploaded in 24 days. Sagarmatha also plans to emulate Amazon, although 
it never mentioned the e-commerce giant by name. It plans to launch an 
offering called Sagarmatha Peak, the company said, that would give 
customers free or expedited delivery on online shopping, member-only 
discounts, access to streaming TV shows and movies (“including original 
content”), and subscriptions to its newspapers and magazines. That is a 
near perfect description of Amazon Prime.

3.It also has plans for augmented reality, virtual reality, and wants to 
develop “cryptocurrencies and other products and services such as 
insurance and lending arrangements.”

But to list successfully on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) first 
required a private placement; Survé sought R7.5 billion from private 
supporters to bring the firm at least half the way to becoming Africa’s 
first “unicorn,” i.e., a startup firm with an Initial Public Offering 
value of US$1 billion. To Survé’s chagrin, the Public Investment 
Corporation (PIC) confirmed it would not buy Sagarmatha shares, in spite 
of having put R4.3 billion of its investment fund into Ayo Technologies 
– nearly a third of the firm’s nominal value but 15 times its apparent 
real value (Thamm 2020) – as a result of Survé’s personal friendship 
with PIC chief executive Dan Matjila.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange then refused to allow Sagarmatha’s 
listing, claiming that financial statements filed at the Companies and 
Intellectual Property Commission were not in order. Sagarmatha claimed 
it had ticked all the required boxes and that it was fully compliant. It 
wasn’t, Survé later admitted. Indeed when in 2020, the 
presidentially-commissioned investigative report on the PIC was 
released, it was very scathing about Survé’s malfeasance and outright 
manipulation of the PIC and likewise about what was termed Matjila’s 
“gross negligence” (Thamm 2020).

Another facet of a mythical 4IR – its role in “inclusive growth” – 
entailed much more extensive promotional hype in 2018, through the BRICS 
bloc which that year was chaired by Ramaphosa. In April 2018, just as 
Sagarmatha was collapsing, Survé was enjoying high-profile leadership of 
the BRICS Business Councils network, comprised of local corporate 
leaders but also twenty others from Brazil, Russia, India and China. In 
July 2018, the BRICS Heads of State Summit was held in Sandton, and the 
key figure from government organising the event behind the scenes was 
Survé’s ally Anil Sooklal, a deputy director general of the Department 
of International Cooperation and Development. Sooklal crafted the BRICS 
summit theme: “inclusive growth and shared prosperity agenda in the 
4IR,” and assisted in arranging Xi Jinping’s keynote address to Survé’s 
business group just before the summit.

In the same month, a costly BRICS Academic Forum event in Sandton was 
also driven by all manner of claims about the BRICS’ role in promoting 
economic collaboration, social justice and environmental conservation, 
notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, at a time university 
research was being drastically defunded (Bond 2019). The final 
humiliation for Survé was when in October 2018, just after Siyabonga 
Gama was fired as Transnet CEO for corruption, it was announced that 
Davies had fired all five members. It wasn’t Gama alone; three of the 
others had also suffered similar controversies: Survé, Aspen 
Pharmaceutical’s Stavros Nicolaou and Mediterranean Shipping Company’s 
Sello Rasethaba. In acquiring prolific wealth, they had attracted 
serious charges of tender fraud (Survé, Gama, and Rasethaba) (Sole, 
2013; Legal Brief, 2010); price fixing (Nicolaou on cancer medicines in 
the European Union for which Aspen paid a hefty fine) (Khan, 2017); 
Gupta-denialism (Gama) (Menon, 2017); spying on anti-corruption 
whistle-blowers (Gama) (Mashego, 2018); and even sexual harassment in 
the course of BRICS-related travel duties (Rasethaba) (Malope, 2018).

*Dangers from hacking and surveillance abuse *

The dubious character of the 4IR promoters was not the only dilemma, for 
by the middle of 2018, many other reasons emerged to create new doubts 
in the technology. Even /Business Report /technology correspondent 
Wesley Diphoko – also Sagarmatha’s Chief Information Officer – began 
covering widespread computer theft of data from Liberty Life insurance 
(one of many victims) in broader terms that highlighted the 4IR’s dangers:

The hacking of Liberty is just a sign of things to come. The reason for 
this is simple and it relates to the fact that there’s a move towards 
connecting everything. The Internet of Things, which is one of the key 
features of the Fourth Industrial Age, will enable everyday objects such 
automobiles (cars, buses and trains), homewares (fridge, washing 
machine, stove), clothing (jackets, spectacles, watches) to be 
connected. Institutions such as schools, police stations and hospitals 
will all be connected. The more connected we will be, the more 
vulnerable we will be. The nature of crime will change and the Liberty 
Hack should be seen as just an example of what will happen to other 
institutions. (Diphoko 2018)

For Diphoko (2018), “crimes that will be possible in the future the more 
connected we are and the more we rely on digitally enabled tools” 
include “car cyber hijacking, 3D guns and country hacking.” The Chrysler 
Jeep was so easily hacked that the firm recalled 1.4 million vehicles. 
The 4IR field of 3D printing makes gun manufacture feasible, at home. 
And in the case of one sophisticated country, Sweden, “sensitive and 
personal data of millions of people along with the nation’s military 
secrets, have been exposed, putting every individual’s as well as 
national security at risk,” warned Diphoko (2018). He then sounded 
another alarm: “I am currently reading this book, /The Age of 
Surveillance Capitalism/ by Professor Shoshana Zuboff, as I believe it 
is one of the best books written in our time, and you will be hard 
pressed to find a more critical reading or the 4IR especially this 
surveillance capitalism of the Big Data companies than that by Shoshana 
Zuboff”(Diphoko 2018).

In addition to hacking, extreme surveillance presents another 
vulnerability for society thanks to Big Data’s voracious appetite and 
technological prowess, states’ desire for extreme levels of control, and 
corporation’s perpetual search for profit maximisation. The most 
dangerous such manifestation is Beijing’s “Social Credit” system, in 
which South Africans are playing an important passive role. The Chinese 
state and two leading corporations – Tencent and Alibaba –together rate 
people the way Western credit rating agencies and lenders have done for 
ages, but in China with a profound innovation. The factor in having a 
strong credit rating there is not just repayment consistency, but 
personal and social behaviour. Social Credit relies upon facial 
recognition software, installed to analyse data flows from millions of 
cameras. The result is the state’s penalisation – not through a 
courtroom but with a rapid change to a personal rating – of antisocial 
acts ranging from serious crimes like assault, to petty offenses such as 
jaywalking or not taking your dog for a walk on a leash.

A graffiti covered wall Description automatically generatedBy mid-2019, 
as the system was just beginning to operate, punishments included the 
denial of 27 million airplane tickets and 6 million high-speed rail 
trips for even minor violations. Those committing offenses are to remain 
on blacklists from two to five years. On the other hand, those 
considered trustworthy do have perks. /Wired/ magazine assessed the 
process in 2020: “The system as it exists today is more a patchwork of 
regional pilots and experimental projects, with few indications about 
what could be implemented at a national scale.” But that has not stopped 
some from positing the scenario that was described in /Black Mirror/ TV 
series, in a show called Nosedive in which the narcissism and vanity 
associated with such ratings reaches extreme levels.

An uptick in “China bashing” was one obvious consequence, as illustrated 
by then U.S. Vice President Mike Pence: “By 2020, China’s rulers aim to 
implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every 
facet of human life. In the words of that program’s official blueprint, 
it will ‘allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while 
making it hard for the discredited to take a single step’” (Matsakis 
2019). That is indeed rhetoric from the official Chinese document, 
though rhetoric is not always matched by reality. But the official 
narrative suggests that if trustworthy Chinese help the poor, praise the 
government on social media, engage in charity work, or donate blood or 
money, they receive benefits, such as fast-tracking a work promotion, 
priority status for children’s school admissions, and easier access to 
bank loans and tax breaks.

The untrustworthy, in contrast, spread rumours on the internet, offer 
insincere apologies for their crimes, cheat in online games or do not 
visit their aging parents regularly, for example. The threat to the 
Chinese people will probably be when facial recognition captures those 
citizens – even when wearing Covid-19 face masks – who protest against 
the government or companies. Millions of protesters take to the Chinese 
streets to demonstrate frustrations each year, not to mention millions 
more in Hong Kong. Sometimes the grievances are a source of local 
pollution or corruption, or in the latter case, existential threats to 
their (semi-democratic) freedoms and way of life posed by the Chinese 
Communist Party. Penalties for acts deemed “anti-social” include 
exclusion from booking flights or train tickets, ineligibility for 
certain jobs, restricted access to public services, and public shaming. 
For example, by mid-2019, on 290,000 occasions, individuals were blocked 
from taking senior management jobs. (More trivially, 1400 dog owners 
were fined or lost points or even had their dogs confiscated, if they 
engage in behaviour like not cleaning up after their dog walking, and 
pet off leash.)

This system works in large part because China’s equivalent of Facebook 
and Twitter is WeChat, run by Tencent. The firm’s value skyrocketed 
during the 2010s, making it Asia’s largest firm. But by historical 
accident, investors in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange typically have a 
high proportion of their portfolio in the form of Tencent shares, given 
that by 2021 it accounted for more than 30 percent of JSE market 
capitalisation. This accident was thanks to an exceptionally lucky bet 
by the former leader – Koos Bekker – of what had been for most of its 
history apartheid’s main media propaganda firm, Naspers. In 2001, as 
Nasper’s CEO, Bekker found $35 million in hard currency that he could 
invest abroad. After meeting Tencent founder Pony Ma, he invested in 
Tencent, a deal that grew to be worth $200 billion twenty years later.

Tencent’s 2001 purchase price was just a fraction of a Hong Kong dollar. 
In 2004 the firm listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange at 80 cents. 
Within 15 years it had risen by a factor of 700 to nearly $600 per 
share. But one problem encountered in the meantime was illustrative: in 
2018, the share price crashed by one fifth, once Pony Ma was told by the 
Chinese government to stop importing Japanese video games because of the 
detrimental impact they were having on Chinese children. Investors 
feared that any such sign of disapproval by Beijing would threaten their 
interests. To be sure, they returned in droves and the price continued 
to soar after 2019, but the confrontation between capital’s profit drive 
and the state’s desire to retain cultural power was revealing. In 
mid-2019, Bekker decided – alongside his CEO successor at Naspers, Bob 
van Dijk – to move Tencent ownership to Amsterdam, using a new company 
specifically designed to hold the shares, Prosus. From then onward, the 
profits from Tencent (converted to Euros) would increasingly flow to the 
Next exchange in the Netherlands, not to South Africa, in a move that 
will over time degrade South Africa’s already negative balance on 
profits, dividends and interest. This problem began in earnest in 
1999-2000 – when the largest JSE firms relisted in London – and has 
typically driven the current account balance deep into negative 
territory (often below -5%), requiring more infusions of expensive 
foreign debt to cover the outflows.

Another dangerous reflection of the socio-political character of facial 
recognition software central to the Social Credit system – as well as 
ongoing crime-related surveillance – is the differential capacity of a 
camera to recognise faces according to their skin colour. as Amy Hawkins 
(2018) explained in the U.S. journal /Foreign Policy/, “Many parts of 
Africa are essentially reliant on Chinese for their telecoms and digital 
services,” so this is potentially a major flaw in the surveillance 
system. In Johannesburg, the Chinese firm Hikvision has the world’s 
leading surveillance camera network. In Zimbabwe, there is widespread 
experimentation by the Chinese firm CloudWalk to solve this problem, but 
according to Natasha Msonza, co-founder of the Digital Society of 
Zimbabwe: “It feels like [CloudWalk] is looking for guinea pigs. I don’t 
believe that the Zimbabwe government gave this proposition much thought 
before volunteering its citizens to be subjected to racial facial 
recognition experiments.”

Not all of this 4IR surveillance is adverse to the public interest, for 
some criminal activity is deterred (or often just displaced) and the 
Covid-19 crisis is one instance in which such systems could be important 
to protect public health. For example, in Barcelona, one firm (Herta) 
identified – using artificial intelligence and surveillance capacities 
in ever more sophisticated cameras – whether groups of people were 
standing too close together during Spain’s highly contagious Covid-19 
outbreak. However, in other societies such as New Zealand, a 
track-and-tracing system was effectively implemented in a manner that 
isn’t considered such a treat to civil liberties and privacy.//

No matter how sophisticated the cameras, there also arises the 
possibility of an arms race between states and activists. Hong Kong is 
the state of the most advanced struggles over surveillance. As 
journalist Masha Borak (2018) explained,

Hong Kong’s protesters have learned to hide their identities. They cover 
their faces with masks, goggles and hard hats during press conferences. 
They spray paint surveillance cameras and point pocket lasers at police 
cameras. But it’s not just their faces that can give them away. 
Protesters have also learned to hide their smartphone data using various 
security-related apps now climbing the download charts. With the 
anti-government movement increasingly resulting in clashes in the 
streets and with arrests piling up, the city’s most popular apps are 
changing. Aside from the usual contenders like YouTube and Snapchat, the 
iOS App Store’s top download charts this week included an app that gives 
a fake GPS location, password-locked document storage app iSafe, and a 
panic button for smartphones called Parachute which automatically 
records video, audio and location data during an emergency. It also 
sends out texts, calls, emails and recorded content to emergency contacts.

*South African surveillance*

There is not yet the threat of Chinese-scale mass surveillance in South 
Africa, though disturbing indicators are evident. Cellphone-jamming 
technology and bulk-data surveillance capacities were purchased by the 
South Africa’s State Security Agency and used during the 2010s. But in 
2021 – at a time of widespread discrediting of the agency for its 
pro-Zuma slush fund – these practices were declared unconstitutional. 
The AmaBhungane investigative journalism agency discovered that one of 
its journalists, Sam Sole, was targeted for snooping reminiscent of the 
way the National Security Agency engages in mass spying through 
cellphones, laptops and other devices. Sole’s 2021 victory was a 
substantial step forward for civil liberties against 4IR capabilities 
(Sole 2021).

Nevertheless, in the most unequal city in the world, Johannesburg, 
surveillance cameras were ubiquitous, first by the late 1990s in the two 
central business districts; then on the main highways during 
construction of an early-2010s toll-road system (widely rejected by 
users); and then through a suburban anti-crime surveillance strategy 
launched by the AI-based firm, Vumacam, in the late 2010s. On the one 
hand, these latter cameras are celebrated by anyone concerned with 
gender-based violence; on the other, the coverage was, by 2021, limited 
to upscale suburbs. The installation cost for the 15 000 cameras was 
vast: R500 million. But there was ultimately no correlation of camera 
locations to the areas of greatest desperation, i.e., those suffering 
high unemployment and poverty. A company official conceded, “Vumacam was 
not planning on rolling out cameras in Dobsonville (within Soweto) 
because it was difficult for the company to operate in areas that did 
not have active private security companies” (Sibembe 2019).

/Vumacam Johannesburg coverage in comparison to unemployment and income/

A close up of a map Description automatically generated

The state’s augmentation in some wealthy areas by an “artificially 
intelligent smart camera network” run by a private 4IR company in 
conjunction with private security firms is ultimately useless to those 
involved in combatting crime against poor and working-class people 
(especially women) in mainly Black neighbourhoods where there are no 
cameras. But there are other ways the “smart cameras” reinforce 
prevailing racial power relations, according to Yale Law School 
Information Society Project researcher Michael Kwet:

Fibrehoods posted a real-life iSentry “shift report,” which lists 14 
incidents flagging 28 “suspicious” people in the Johannesburg suburbs. 
All 28 people flagged for “unusual behavior” are black, even though the 
majority of the suburb’s population are white. CCTV systems are now 
equipped with sophisticated video analytics that can track a wide range 
of behaviors, objects, and patterns, in addition to individual faces. 
Armed with powerful new tech, communities of color can be watched, 
flagged, policed, and intimidated into submission.

The story of Vumacam goes back more than a decade, with the buildup of a 
surveillance empire that has capitalised on advances in artificial 
intelligence, the deployment of high-speed internet to the suburbs, and 
the monopolistic dynamics of the CCTV industry. The public was led to 
believe this was merely an extension of fiber optic internet to 
households craving high-speed connectivity. What they weren’t told is 
the fiber project was first created for high-tech surveillance. What 
constitutes “abnormal behavior detection” appears to be racially biased 
in a region where security officers disproportionately target people of 

State regulation of such abuse is simply non-existent, adds University 
of Johannesburg media scholar Jane Duncan, since “technology is running 
far ahead of the policy.” Moreover, Vumacam did not “conduct a privacy 
impact assessment, which should be standard for privacy-invading 
systems.” After all, Duncan argued, CCTV was ineffective as a crime 
fighting tool, because of its displacement of crime to “poorer areas. 
That is why public policy is needed before systems like these are rolled 
out, as this allows the public an opportunity to define the city-wide 
rules for public space surveillance.” Asked by reporter Yanga Sibembe 
(2019) whether personal information about the people its cameras 
surveyed was kept definitively secure, Vumacam could not answer 

*South Africa’s 4IR personalities*

Before addressing the contestation of 4IR, consider the role of outsized 
personalities – and the various processes that legitimised and 
delegitimised their operations. Extreme 4IR promotionalism by the likes 
of Iqbal Survé and Anil Sooklal appears ephemeral and flitty; both 
rarely quoted the term publicly after 2018, in the wake of their 
energetic but failed Sagarmatha and BRICS sagas. By 2020, Paul 
Lamontagne was ridiculed in the Toronto /Globe and Mail, /after he had 
returned to Canada to run a tech-oriented state-financed venture capital 
fund, for having ridiculously overvalued Sagarmatha (as its chief 
financial official) and for predicting it would be “the Africa Facebook, 
the Africa Bloomberg” (York and McClearn 2020).

South Africa’s main 4IR tycoon, Koos Bekker, never engaged in such hype, 
but profiteering by Naspers appears nearly entirely parasitical, given 
that the local businesses – primarily Media24 and Take-A-Lot retail 
delivery – are considered in both the JSE and Amsterdam’s Next stock 
exchange to impose a massive net drain on Naspers and Prosus valuation, 
sometimes as much as 40 percent. The values of the Tencent holdings in 
these holding companies remained far higher than the value of their 
total assets. In other words, the 4IR’s erratic implications for the 
highest-profile South African private sector investors can be summarised 
as highly lucrative for offshore holdings, but verging on a joke when it 
comes to in-country investments.

This conclusion is confirmed when considering the best-known South 
African in the 4IR field, Elon Musk, who in 2021 became the world’s 
richest person after a $150 billion personal wealth bonanza during 
2020’s New York Stock Exchange splurge. His main firm, Tesla, is 
massively overvalued in part because of media hype – and his 
privately-held SpaceX will have the same benefits once publicly 
launched, when Musk soars even further away from second-ranked Jeff 
Bezos in the rich-list ratings. Musk was raised in Johannesburg and 
Pretoria, but left the country with a strong desire to break away from 
apartheid’s strict racist and patriarchal power relations, after being 
hospitalised for two weeks due to the brutality of hazing at Randburg 
High School. He transferred to Pretoria Boys, whose reputation was 
slightly less ghastly. At that time, the late 1980s, army service for 
young white South African men was considered not just repressive but 
profoundly unethical. So Musk came into his own after emigrating to 
Canada and studying at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School 
(where Donald Trump had studied two generations earlier). His career 
began innovating in computer security and he soon moved into electric 
vehicles, household solar batteries and space travel.

Most relevant to our concerns, in 2018 Musk had sponsored a documentary 
critical of the 4IR – “Do you trust this computer” – expressing fear 
that by putting robotics and artificial intelligence together in a 
factory and by mistake leaving open the door, humanity would be 
threatened by excessively rapid machine-learning. The clear danger to 
AI-enabled robots is the programmer, hence they may well decide it is in 
their interests one day, to eliminate human life altogether, 
/Terminator/-style. As Musk once put it, “artificial intelligence is a 
fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization. The danger of 
AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads.” By 2021, little 
had been done in the sphere of AI regulation to dampen the likelihood of 
such a scenario.

Another famous innovator in 4IR from South Africa is Mark Shuttleworth, 
who as a young engineer invented software that PayPal uses for security, 
followed by the copyright-free Ubuntu operating system. Although he is a 
generous philanthropist, the asterisk by Shuttleworth’s record is his 
attempt to take large amounts of money out of South Africa to a tax 
haven where he holds residential rights, which was deemed illegal by the 
Reserve Bank in a famous exchange control case. This reminds society of 
the tendency of South Africa’s ultra-rich to engage in shrink-the-state 
practices, offshoring of wealth and outright Illicit Financial Flows to 
Western safe havens, which the Treasury’s Financial Intelligence Centre 
estimated to be in the range of a financial market drain of 3-7 percent 
of GDP annually.

In another 4IR instance of optimising ICT, Nkosana Makate illustrates 
the small innovator’s disadvantages when fighting massive firms like 
Vodacom. Makate worked for the cellular phone corporation and invented 
the idea of “Please call me.” For that he was rewarded with R59 million, 
but his lawyers claim he was cheated, and demanded R60 billion for the 
massive value added that he provided.

In a final case, the main innovator of “financial inclusion” using Big 
Data, Serge Bellamant, ended his career in shame in 2019 because his 
algorithms were deemed profoundly anti-social. Originally from Belgium, 
Belamant grew up in South Africa and was a banking-sector computer 
programmer for decades until he invented next-generation 
credit-assessment software for low-income borrowers. The repayments came 
through debit stop-orders on monthly welfare grants, and the zero-risk 
system allowed Belamant to found the firm Net1, as (tokenistic) cash 
transfers grew in popularity among neoliberal social policy-makers 
during the 2010s (Bond 2014). Under the rubric of financial inclusion 
investment, Net1's main backer (with 22 percent ownership) during the 
late 2010s was the World Bank International Finance Corporation. While 
Net1’s South Africa subsidiary Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) made 
Belamant extremely rich by providing predatory FinTech to very poor 
people, as discussed below, the activist group Black Sash not only 
protested and eventually took away its lucrative contract, pushing CPS 
into bankruptcy in 2020 as punishment.

But, more generally, in this spirit, a new 4th Industrial 
/Counter-/Revolution emerged from progressive activist circuits aiming 
not to reject useful technology, but to /socialise/ the 4IR. The most 
spectacular was when in 2001, Intellectual Property - so crucial for 4IR 
tech-monopoly profiteering - was decommodified by the Treatment Action 
Campaign and its allies, as applied to vitally-deeded anti-retroviral 
medicines for people living with HIV, a strategy which will perhaps be 
applicable again to Covid-19 vaccines and treatment. But another 
half-dozen struggles for socio-economic and environmental justice during 
the subsequent two decades illustrate the Polanyian double movement (and 
the triple movement identified by Nancy Fraser) at a time so many 
features of 4IR penetration of all aspects of life need to be pushed back.


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