One of the most talked about topics on the international conference circuit today is the fourth industrial revolution. It is said it will transform our lives much faster and more profoundly than previous ones have done.
The talk is about the immense possibilities offered by such things as artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing and biotechnology, among others.
These are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They are already with us. Pilotless planes, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have been in use for quite a while for a variety of purposes.
Rwanda will soon use them for delivery services. Driverless cars will soon be on the market.
Those smart enough are positioning themselves to reap maximum benefits from the latest technological developments. No one wants to be left behind. The assumption, of course, is that we have all gone beyond the first three.
The story in large parts of Africa is different. In many countries the news is about ritual murders and witchcraft – how to use these to gain certain commercial or social advantages.
In one country it has been about a highly educated university researcher who thinks undressing in public is more exciting than teaching boring PhD courses. She may well be right because she has become an instant celebrity – well, of sorts.
Add to this a good dose of xenophobia and accompanying violence against migrants or refugees, and you get a real toxic mixture, not the sort to drive the continent to the fourth industrial revolution, but rather to take it back to an earlier age.
The most recent story involving witchcraft and xenophobia played out in Zambia recently. Rwandan refugees living and doing business in Lusaka were attacked. Their shops were looted.
The reason for this was that they are successful business people and in the minds of the attackers that can only be due to witchcraft. They were alleged to have murdered people and cut off body parts that they used in some rituals to gain business advantage.
Of course, we know the reasons to be deeper than this. They have to do with economic hard times ordinary Zambians are going through. The ritual murder tag was only a pretext, a convenient outlet for economic frustrations.
Still, it reflects a deeply entrenched mindset among some Africans – that success is guaranteed and failure averted by the intervention of the supernatural. It is the only way you can explain achievement or shortcoming.
There is no other way.
It is not only in Zambia this has happened.
In Uganda we have read stories about little innocent children snatched from the comfort of their homes, or the delights of the playing field and taken to be sacrificed in some macabre ritual.
The blood of the innocents and choice parts of their anatomy are used to bless the property of the wealthy so that their businesses and careers can prosper, and their houses outshine all others in the neighbourhood.
Even big corporations and government departments have been linked with the dark arts. No public project like a road or a multi-storey office or commercial block will be undertaken before a human being, usually a child, is sacrificed.
Not so long ago, being an Albino in Tanzania was a death sentence. The poor fellows, already disadvantaged by their appearance, were being hunted and killed and chopped up because parts of their body reportedly bring fortune to others.
In Zambia, the people who attacked Rwandans and looted their shops were ordinary people hit hard by hard times. In other places, those behind child abductions and ritual murders are not the poor and ignorant, but wealthy, educated, well-placed and respectable members of society.
The belief in the role of the supernatural in human life is not a peculiarly African one. It is in fact the basis of every religious conviction. People have always sought divine intervention, especially when things are really difficult. But when they are successful, it is due to their hard work.
However, it becomes very dangerous when it is the sole basis and explanation for human achievement. People are no longer responsible for their future. That sort of attitude kills initiative, slows down or stops thinking altogether and makes it impossible to find answers to all sorts of challenges.
And so when we are on the threshold of the fourth industrial revolution, when the race is about who will make the next application that will perform multiple tasks and make our lives more comfortable, it is unacceptable that, for some, the competition should be about which body parts bring fortune.
To survive in the new world requires innovation. Soon the slogan might be, ‘adapt or die’. And those who can’t will surely die. Ritual murders, real or imagined, or other forms of witchcraft will not save them.