No Amandla without data

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Not one to have cold feet around his boarding school accent, and yet to make any outlandish promises about fixing everything overnight, Arise South Africa leader Mpho Dagada is not the archetypal South African politician. The 29-year old presidential hopeful’s string of runaway successes hark back to 2013. While fellow first-year students at the University of Johannesburg were partying up a storm, he was running a laundry and cleaning service company, and investing the profits in Bitcoin. The result? As the cover of his recently published autobiography proclaims, a millionaire by 21 …

A decade on he’s an author, keynote speaker and – is this guy sane? – hopes to take the reins from the very president who once appointed him to the presidential Fourth Industrial Revolution Commission. Then again, with the mushrooming of a slew of new political parties, many of these startups cut severely against the grain. From embittered former party bigwigs to ex-newspapermen, they are, in the main, a different breed to the chizkop (head shaved to the nub), suit-and-tie bureaucracy that’s been in our faces since the Madiba years.

Nicknamed ‘Mr Bitcoin’, Dagada is a familiar voice on both mainstream and maverick media platforms; thinks nothing of breaking into random song or dance routines; and dabbles in hobbies that are hardly established drawcards under what is often a tediously populist political firmament. He’s tried to woe Elon Musk – inarguably the least popular figure in democratic socialist circles – about the possibility of the Tesla CEO investing in battery manufacturing to alleviate the loadshedding nightmare in the country. He’s even visited Silicon Valley, trying to learn a thing or two from the Mark Zuckerbergs of this bold new age.

For the most part, Dagada’s jingle on things like cryptocurrency, robotics and data is left-field and likely flies right over the heads of voters stuffed on the cold-blooded diet of revolutionary politics. Commonly, the rhetoric that garners mileage here often entails waxing lyrical about crime, land expropriation, and the power crisis — like you’ll be able to fix them the moment you’re voted into power. Oh yes, and social grants; a welfare state is, after all, low-hanging fruit to the ghastly horror of sustainable economic growth. Still, Dagada doesn’t appear too keen on being the silver-tongued grifter who pulls the wool over the eyes of the elderly.

By his estimation, the current leaders are “pensioners… 60, 70 years old [whose] thinking capacity is limited.” And he is quite frank about his party seeking to “represent the young people of South Africa”

“We realise that young people are unemployed, with an unemployment rate of over 50%. So when we looked into the landscape, we realised that there’s a dire need for young people to get involved.” He goes on to say that his party “don’t believe that the status quo of ‘we focus on everybody and everything’ works in South Africa. We’ve seen political parties like the ruling party focus on everybody and everything, and none of that actually worked.”

So he labours at length on what could be construed as a damp squib in a climate where singing about being handed a machine gun enjoys more gravitas than giving winding talks on entrepreneurship, block chain technology and data. In and of itself, data and digitisation may seem like non-issues when weighed against the half-starved, in-the-flesh millions who languish unemployed, pleading for menial jobs at the intersection. Or the guns and thugs that wreak havoc in the country.

However, data – or the lack thereof – has also come to be known as “the new frontier” – the new colonial divide that could widen the disparities between the developing and the developed world. Surely this ought to be a priority issue when even the United Nations has said as much. Miffed that nothing came of government’s 4IR commission, Dagada believes that the administration “are not agile enough to be able to move with the times and compare themselves with governments… that focus solely on ideas more than [they do] on political squabbles.”

Digitisation, he believes, could solve an array of troubles not least that of immigration, because, as things stand, the government does not even know how many foreign nationals are in the country. With vast technological developments in artificial intelligence (AI), social media platforms and all the attendant advancements in the 4IR, the digital revolution has blown the economic landscape wide open, challenging the norms of doing business.

This writer has agonised and whined to colleagues who thought he had lost it about data surely being the currency of the day. Without it, nothing moves. Not the student with a research assignment to submit, nor the writer with a deadline to honour, and much of the global economy is nowadays dependant on gigabytes and reliable network connections.

An article like this one may seem like an off-the-top write-up, right? If only. Apart from reading up on the subject and digging up old interviews, data becomes the thing to have if you don’t want to BS the readership by not checking and rechecking your facts, potentially misreprenting the subject and tainting your credibility.

Arise South Africa on a recruitment drive. Image: Arise South Africa Facebook page

In fact, with the Covid-19 lockdowns where working remotely became a necessity, tradition found itself challenged by the new ways of doing. The financial potential of this industry saw young creatives emerging on platforms like TikTok, and technologically innovative businesses booming, while regular people were being laid off en masse, as well as the creation of apps that would help consumers navigate their way around “the new normal”.

This, one imagines, is exactly how the Industrial Revolution must have looked to a factory worker in the 18th century. In the same fashion that machines were gutting and shortening the assembly lines, the 4IR is kicking down the door, threatening to inflict the same. Survival lies in minds that are able to utilise the necessary tech skills so as to weather or at least stave off the inevitable onslaught.

But is government moving fast enough to seize the moment? Though the intentions may well be there, the truth is, a few factors mean we are slow out of the starting blocks. The obvious one is the energy crisis. “Earlier in 2019,” writes Dr Anish Shivdasani, “South Africa saw the biggest GDP contraction in a decade – primarily as a result of load shedding, underscoring how critical Eskom is to business continuity and productivity.” Intermittent bouts of severe power cuts, which are expected to continue well into next year, signal a major impediment.

Whether Dagada, who preaches this gospel of youthful ideas and innovation, and invites intelligentsia types to his fold, will emerge as a figure of some power from the 2024 polls, is highly doubtful. In a country where leadership appears to be a playground for the senile, his Mohawk and talk of the internet may put him at the receiving end of South Africa’s biting humour. Those in the DA were often called “garden boys” for their affiliation.

Who knows, Dagada may find himself going by the moniker of Mr TikTok or something far more witty. However, should he achieve impressive numbers without so much as ever having punched the air whilst yelling an impassioned ‘Amandla!’, then history will remember the 2024 election as the year in which a disillusioned youth came out and spoke, and in so doing, pulled the rug of politics as we’d come to know them from under the feet of the people, as well as the Gogos who lead them.

* This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Phakamisa Mayaba’s website, eParkeni.

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