ON THE RECORD: Nick Binedell on robots v humans, corruption and re-introducing death penalty

At the WEF Africa meeting, Nick Binedell, the founder and former dean of GIBS, Africa’s top business school, applied his mind to some tricky questions posed by members of the Biznews community. His responses opened a number of new avenues of inquiry. He was talking to Biznews founder Alec Hogg.

Nick Binedell, we’ve got a whole bunch of questions for you. The first one comes from Mario Swart. Robots are more efficient and more productive than human beings and are getting even better, even more productive. What’s going to happen to all the human beings particularly in a country like South Africa where unemployment’s already very high?

I’ve just been reading some very exciting research about chess. Kasparov being beaten by a machine. They’ve run hybrid contests now where chess players can use computers to play, where computers are still outperformed by the humans, in the sense that the pattern of the game is a human thing. Technology can do tactics but it can’t do the kind of strategic pattern thinking that humans can. But the broader question is, we’re a society with low skills, most of our people will really struggle in the fourth industrial revolution. We do see an upside, many platform companies have been established already – Uber and so on – who are creating thousands and thousands of jobs. The other thing is it’s going to impact on the existing second and third industrial revolution industries such as agriculture and manufacturing. So there’ll be an upgrade there as we ingest and use these technologies.

Do we know where the jobs are going to come from?

We’ve done some research on this and there are areas where we can see globally traded services, where 3,000 people teach English to the Chinese, online, in South Africa. 3,000 kids, graduates who’ve been trained and they are doing an amazing job. These kinds of opportunities exist and we’re finding that it’s not always related to formal education. The story you were hearing earlier, was about two sales girls in the retail sector taken for a test and told you can be Data Sciences in the next three years, come into the process and learn. So it’s not all bad news but it requires an agile and quick response.

We talked about the PPGI – something you’re intimately involved with – one of the processes on the public side is Eskom which everybody knows is overstaffed, a lot of people from Eskom are going to need to do something different. Again Marius is saying: is there any way of turning them into entrepreneurs, into subcontractors?

Well I think Eskom and government are going to have to make a plan about about it, which is very sensitive politically given our unemployment, but yes I think people are beginning to think about what’s the migration out. Some of them have technical skills, some general workers, some have quite high level skills. How do we deal with that and can we absorb them? I think the entrepreneurial story is a little more complicated than we think. If you have been a lifelong employee, even a manager, it’s very hard to become an entrepreneur. But they have had good experience and skills and even though Eskom itself as an organisation is a mess, I think there are many good people there who Eskom don’t actually need and hopefully they’ll get absorbed elsewhere.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

I don’t think I am an entrepreneur. I may be a little entrepreneurial because the core of it is the ability to see a gap that someone hasn’t seen. When we started GIBS people thought it wasn’t a gap. There was, there’s always some kind of gap and its the ability to see things that others don’t see and bring energy to it. It’s not an instinctive thing. I think it can be taught a little but there has to be an attitude to it.

There is a question from one of our community members who says surely politicians should also be entrepreneurial or at least judged by economic growth. Shouldn’t remuneration of politicians be correlated to the country’s economic growth?

So it’s a very intriguing question. Singapore have done that in the past, I don’t know if they still do. Cabinet reviews their performance and they’re paid at the level of multinational CEOs in Singapore so, highly paid and incentivised for growth, like China has done as well. In this country, on performance measures you ask: What’s the thing we’re trying to achieve right now? It’s growth. If you’d asked me five years ago I would say actually it’s more complex than just growth. Right now the focus has to be GDP, connected to growth.

Why don’t we do something like that?

That kind of bold move is very unlikely to come out of the system I’m afraid, but I think it’s something that actually is worthwhile doing for a period to stimulate growth. Government is such a key regulator, legislator and inhibited from time to time, and the more you work with government, you realise a senior government official is an administrator. Not thinking about the knock on effects and consequences of policy. Just yesterday I was hearing from someone very frustrated with a fairly junior official who’s blocking a significant investment. So you’ve got to get that kind of thinking driven from the top. It could start in Cabinet and I don’t have any difficulty with it.

Are human beings driven by incentives?

Yes of course. But the incentive to create jobs or to see  family members or to see your community develop and be content, is a more subtle way of measuring performance. So if we look at China now, we can see GDP growth has been the variable and GDP growth at that level has caused lots of tensions and difficulties for China.

A community member of ours – Doug says – does the ANC deliberately keep people uneducated because uneducated people will always need the ANC?

Absolutely not. I hear that from time to time. I think it’s absolute nonsense. The system’s just educating people very badly and we’ve been unable to reform it and transform it into something productive. So we have an underperforming system. I don’t think it’s intentional.

Mike Bower asks why must Tito consult all members of the alliance when very few have an understanding of how economics works. UJ did a study which said only 14 percent of the ANC parliamentarians know that. Surely a select group in the economics and finance portfolios would be sufficient?

Well that’s what he’s done and it’s a very good document, very well researched and put together. It’s a sort of tactical plan if you like. It’s not a grand strategy but I think it’s a very good document and I’m fully behind it. One must consult because it’s a democratic political process. The question is we’ve done enough of this now. It’s time for action and I’m hoping that this thing will come to action and maybe we’ll find that they just get on with it anyway that there’ll be opposition, there’ll be lots of discussion. Cosatu rejected it before they got to page seven. I think that’s an error and it’s a pity. I think our politicians are becoming a little less sensitive to that pressure. The tension is very high at the moment.

Cathy Pollitt who’s been at Eskom for 32 years, says the collapse saddens her. Not surprisingly she blames it on cadre deployment. She says that Eskom would only improve or be corrected by employing technically experienced and qualified people. Is that what’s happening now?

I think that is what has happened in SOEs. When you’re a liberation movement, you’ve got to make sure the people who are managing the key institutions are going to deliver the transformation and are people you can trust. The problem is it’s been over operationalised and even still today it’s an operation. This is really inappropriate now. Maybe one question is, does the ANC have technocrats who are loyal to it? And can you get both? But I think that has been totally overplayed. It’s the Byzantine kind of idea that we can appoint someone to do a professional job and then vet them for their political values. This belongs in another place and time – not where we are now. Cadre employment is a destructive thing and should be stopped with all the speed you can muster. You have a political party, it forms a cabinet that’s totally appropriate, the cabinet runs the state that’s totally appropriate.

The final question Nick: what about the people who are corrupt who’ve taken money from the state. Surely they should be repaying their ill gotten gains or at the very least when they are being suspended or fired, the state should stop paying them?

Well let’s see what happens in the commissions and in the NPA and the prosecutions which are going to be a long long business. Everybody is saying we need to see people dealt with in the criminal justice system to send the signal that it’s not acceptable. The principle of reclaiming where things have been taken through ill gotten gains, is absolutely right, but I think it’s more important to show people that you can’t actually get away with this and to speed up the prosecution process. The problem in this country is we’re doing everything too slowly. It reminds me of the 80s where the National Party always talked about reform, we’ve got to do it carefully, do it slowly, talk to our constituents and they just lost the plot because they could never keep up with the speed of change. I think the ANC in some ways has been overwhelmed by that and we need to make things happen faster. Prosecution and the consequence has to be inserted into our political system. If you break the law and you are corrupt, you are damaging the entire system. It’s not just the money you take, it’s the consequence of the style of operating. I really am hoping that the law enforcement process, that criminal justice system – led and endorsed by the president – says enough is enough. And here are the consequences. Singapore, which I go to quite often, is such an exception. The rule of law is absolute and the rule of law must apply. You can’t run a modern democratic constitution if the rule of law doesn’t apply. There’s an element of this that’s now deeply embedded in the government and often in the private sector. Going to a small town you see the same problem. The town has been hijacked by a small group of people who are feeding off of the resources that are there to develop the community. Outrageous.

Why is it taking so long to bring them to book?

Because I think the separation between the inner core of our politics, the political economy and the states, the private sector and civil society, is big. As Pravin Gordhan says the dots are not appropriately connected. We want to connect them to show people how they are linked in order to take action.

I’ve got to ask you this question because leaving yesterday the chap at the parking garage pulled me aside showed me the newspaper and said why is the death penalty not being reintroduced? I had a question as well from one of our community members saying exactly the same thing. We had activists outside the WEF yesterday bringing a little bit of Hong Kong to Cape Town by stopping the traffic and saying it’s enough abuse against woman. The death penalty?

I remember asking Richard Goldstone 20 or more years ago and we debated this because the survey showed 65% of South Africans supported the death penalty. He said in a liberal democratic constitution, absolutely not. So there is a popular groundswell now because of the incipient violence and all the things we see in the femicide. People will gut react to that. My view is that as an individual, I wouldn’t support it but as a country in crisis, a country that goes to war, the nature of war is that the death penalty applies to those who fight. I’m afraid I’m not at that point where I would stand up and say I would support the death penalty although many people might. It’s very tragic that we can’t manage our society to stop these kind of crimes.