Editor's note

In a recent survey, we asked our readers what they thought the HSRC Review should focus on. One respondent answered, “anything that reflects the extreme crisis through which we are living”.

Without more context, the concept of an ‘extreme crisis’ will differ among people in an unequal society such as ours. However, there seems to be growing angst among South Africans, caused by the slumping economy, political uncertainty, fragile social cohesion and, for many, a struggle to keep up with the pace of the global digital revolution.

In their presentations at the 2018 HSRC Social Sciences Research Conference in September, HSRC researchers demonstrated the organisation’s continued focus on things that have an impact on the lives of South Africans. In this edition of the HSRC Review, we feature articles based on some of those presentations.

The first section focuses on the impact of rapid digital advancement on society and the concept of a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), a phrase that has become a buzzword. A common definition of the 4IR is that it is characterised by a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. The 4IR focuses on the disruptive elements of technological change. In his presentation, Dr Michael Gastrow emphasised the need for researchers to properly conceptualise the meaning of the term to better focus their work.

Dr Hester du Plessis warned about a social class called the precariat, who are unequal, poor and technologically insecure. As possible casualties of the 4IR, their feelings of anger, anxiety and alienation influence the way they think and write about society. Edward Thabani Mdlongwa spoke at the conference on digital capitalism, a new form of capitalist exploitation by global firms through the development and use of technologies for huge profits at the expense of the poor. One example is the Uber platform, a type of platform capitalism that has been the centre of some violence in South Africa’s taxi industry.

In an article based on his presentation Assoc. Prof. Thierry Luescher wrote about the #FeesMustFall-related Twitter activism by students at the University of Cape Town, explaining how they used media houses and mobilised sympathisers they call ‘twitter cows’.

In May this year, parliament heard that 31% of South African municipalities were dysfunctional and another 31% almost dysfunctional. People in some poor communities have protested violently about the resultant deteriorating service delivery, destroying infrastructure that they actually need to transition out of poverty. HSRC researchers looked at the potential social cost of these protests and at the conflict between local municipal and traditional leadership structures. In some areas, protests are driven by xenophobia and competition for resources. This HSRC Review includes articles on foreigners’ migration patterns and South Africans’ attitudes towards them.

Based on data from the National Income Dynamics Study, Dr Ian Edelstein writes about the unique factors that help some young people to transition out of poverty. Those who do not succeed in doing this, face a significantly higher risk of depression, the prevalence and severity of which are related to their subjective social status, writes Chipo Mutyambizi.

Those who manage to escape poverty might face new challenges, perhaps finding themselves in the precariat, where a degree does not guarantee a secure income. Others find themselves in a draining daily commute to and from work, because they are unable to find affordable accommodation near their jobs. Prof. Ivan Turok writes about the housing challenge in our cities. Several more articles provide a glimpse of HSRC’s work that provides insight or informs policies to improve the lives of South Africans. For more information, please connect with our researchers using their email contact details below each article.