Accelerating South Africa’s digital agenda means thinking about policy

March 27th, 2018, Published in Articles: PositionIT

Tech needs traction. For South Africa to truly embrace digital technology, the country needs a set of clear and effective policy and legal guidelines governing data and the cloud.

Kabelo Makwane

Kabelo Makwane

Consider the province of Gauteng in particular. Gauteng premier David Makhura’s development agenda sees the province developing into an integrated city-region and leading economy. The trajectory involves digital in a major way – information and communications technology (ICT) has been identified as a key strategic lever for everything from the improvement of public service delivery to enhanced government accountability and job creation.

Of course, the question of jobs and job creation are particularly relevant when it comes to talk of tech anywhere in South Africa. A major theme here is change – namely how digital is remaking the future of work. By one popular estimate cited by the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering primary education today will end up working in new (tech-related) job types that don’t yet exist. More than this, the WEF notes current jobs are also set to change, with many likely to disappear in the coming decades as the face of work is remade – an outcome particularly critical to note in SA, where unemployment is already high.

Yet, digital has not left us adrift. Far from it, in fact. Gauteng’s premier noted that South Africa has witnessed a 20% increase in ICT-related jobs over the last decade. Eighty-five percent of households have mobile phone access in Gauteng; 65% have internet access. All present opportunities for how government thinks about bringing services and technology closer to citizens, and how digital can be used to better people’s lives and improve employment.

Gauteng has already seen considerable strides in tech. Consider eKasiLabs, a project of The Innovation Hub and an initiative designed to foster entrepreneurship based on ICT in various townships in Gauteng. Then there is the Tshepo 1 Million project, which aims to find employment for youth, with ICT being a major focus area. Further, there’s Braamfontein’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct and the considerable investments made by tech companies such as IBM and Microsoft in the province.

Against the backdrop of private and public sector tech transformation, the question then becomes: how do we best harness ICT and digital in South Africa? How do we create the frameworks and support structures that allow both government and the private sector to make the best use of technologies such as blockchain, the Internet of Things, machine learning and artificial intelligence? Can these technologies be used meaningfully to help solve challenges on the ground – including those related to service delivery, education, health, transportation, employment and government accountability and transparency?

A critical first step is accelerated thinking around the regulation and policy required. For government and the private sector to be able to meaningfully embrace technologies such as the cloud, a supportive digital environment is crucial. The UK government’s recent appointment of a Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO), for example, was a clear indicator of the direction of thinking at work. Further, the release of the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) framework shows how governmental agencies elsewhere are also beginning to plan for a digital future in a major way. Embracing e-government is likely to be a trend we will witness more and more on a global scale.

Preparing the public and private sectors for a digital future is a top global priority. To keep pace with tech – and to be ready to take advantage of new opportunities – we need to think meaningfully about creating the kind of environment in which digital can flourish.

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