Blade Nzimande and his crew need to embrace technological advance. To use a word they will appreciate, it can actually be ‘liberating’

Unnamed metered-taxi operators made yesterday’s front page for terrorising Uber passengers and drivers on Monday, outside the Gautrain station and elsewhere in Johannesburg.

We’re just lucky the drivers didn’t murder anyone, as taxi drivers have done 15 times in the past year, “violence, not consumer choice” being how this industry often deals with competition issues.

The above quote and statistic emerged from Cape Town, also on Monday. Western Cape Premier Helen Zille devoted her first provincial e-newsletter, appropriate to this age of the internet, to responding to the Uber crisis in her own domain, during which has seen the provincial government has received an instant , aptly on-line petition signed by 20 000 consumers demanding fair licensing sfor Uber drivers.

This is appropriate in today’s “app economy”, which allowed Uber to proliferate in 311 cities only five years after its first launch in San Francisco in 2010.

But those metered-taxi operators — reportedly to be planning a national traffic disruption to protest about being undercut by Uber — are in fact following a very ancient tradition.

They also happen to be on the wrong side of history.

Back in the early 1800s in industrialising England, Ned Ludd encouraged his followers — soon to be dubbed “Luddites” — to smash the new mechanical looms, then the newest technology in the textile industries. The Luddites believed that the new machines would put people out of work.

But, as Walter Isaacson explains in his book The Innovators, “far from putting  people out of work, the Industrial Revolution made England richer and increased the number of people in work, including in the fabric and the clothing industries”.

Of course, this does not mean that current jobs will not be eliminated, just that they will radically change. Oxford University recently published a study suggesting that, because of the advances of technology and robotics, 47% of the jobs in the US are at “high risk” of being taken over by smart machines and software in the next two decades.

PW Botha, of all people, once summonsed his volk to “adapt or die”. Wise advice that he never properly applied, and certainly worthy of application to the new world of work.

Zille, a sympathetic Uber consumer, rightly called in her newsletter calls the company “a market disrupter” that which current legislation has no means to categorise or even regulate.

This, too, is hardly new in our history. At the fag-end of the tricameral parliament, back in 1993, I attended a briefing by the then minister of posts and communication. He was advising parliamentarians of the government’s decision to license two providers of a new-fangled instrument called the mobile cellular telephone. I recall him telling us that, in order to determine a sale price for the licences, the  government’s best estimate was that the number of cellphones likely to be taken up in South Africa would be around 500 000, perhaps 900 000 at most. Today in South Africa there are about 50 million cellphones in use.

The exponential power of computers, data storage, networking and software generation is, every day, disrupting work and workers themselves.

This was very well described by three pioneers of globalisation and technology in the heartland of the techno-savvy US.

Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler — whose own field of inquiry, “entrepreneurial legal studies”, didn’t exist a few years ago — writes: “They are the people formerly known as employees. In a broad range of service industries, workers who once drew a steady salary are cutting out the employer and plying their services direct to people who used to pay companies, rather than people, to meet their needs.”

That’s what you do when you press the Uber-app icon on your cellphone. You summon a nearby “driver-partner” of the parent company. Uber takes a cut, but the deal is between you and the driver.

Tom Goodwin, on the aptly named website, noted in March: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. China’s Alibaba, the world’s most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.

“Something interesting is happening.”

Just how interesting was explained by the pundit who first chronicled the meaning of globalisation in the age of technology: Thomas L Friedman, of the New York Times. He wrote recently how the age of smart machines, robotics and software is revolutionising and disrupting the world of work, the very point emerging from Zille’s newsletter.

“What all these companies have in common is that they have created trust platforms that match supply and demand for things people never thought of supplying: a spare bedroom in a house or a seat in their car.”

But the urge to regulate and look for conspiracies remains strong. In this regard, the SA Communist Party meets for its congress this week. The world of upending and disruptive change is an unsettling place for those whose spiritual father, Karl Marx, was writing when the world of steam was just arriving towards the end of the nineteenth 19th century.

Party general secretary Blade Nzimande recently blamed what he termed “30 years of neo-liberalism” for “massive restructuring in the work place” and for “massive retrenchments, casualisation … and a huge offensive against the working class”.

Like Ned Ludd, Nzimande and his crew need to adapt to the brave new world of technological advance. To use a word they will appreciate, it can actually be “liberating”.

This article first appeared in The Times