The Presidential Commission on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) will need a high profile, resources and teeth if it is to avoid the same fate of units previously created with the aim of taking advantage of rapid advances in ICT.
This is the view expressed by independent analyst Charley Lewis, commenting on what the commission must do to ensure it is not only for show but achieves its mandate.
Yesterday, the Presidency announced the 30-member commission, which comprises representatives of a cross-section of stakeholders, including public sector, business, telecoms, academia and research institutions, finance and SMMEs.
Pointing to the domestic and international iterations of Thabo Mbeki's Presidential National Commission on the Information Society and Development and National Broadband Advisory Council (NBAC) as examples, Lewis says the 4IR commission does not exactly have an illustrious series of predecessors to follow.
According to Lewis, the NBAC meandered along and collapsed, with most of its key members resigning. The same can be said about the ICT Policy Review Panel, which has seen many of its recommendations go unimplemented.
"It [4IR commission] will need to be driven with purpose and listened to and taken seriously, even where its recommendations may be unpopular," Lewis advises.
The brainchild of president Cyril Ramaphosa, the commission has been in the making for more than year.
Its key objective is to coordinate the development of SA's national response through a comprehensive action plan to deal with 4IR. Further, it is to identify relevant policies, strategies and plans that will position the country as a competitive global player.
Since taking office in February, Ramaphosa and his administration have dedicated attention to Industry 4.0 and how to equip citizens with the necessary skills to thrive in a digital society.
Mark Walker, IDC associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa, believes now that a commission dedicated to SA's digital industrial revolution agenda has finally taken shape, its goals and priorities need to be strongly aligned to translate into a practical policy.
When asked about the importance of a commission to assist government to take advantage of the opportunities of 4IR, Walker says the next digital revolution is a very complex environment both technologically and strategically, with multiple stakeholders and possible outcomes. "A commission will hopefully help to navigate these wisely."
For Lewis, it is of crucial importance for SA to have a high-profile national structure that can provide leadership and co-ordination to a wide range of ICT initiatives and interventions in a way that has been sadly lacking in recent years.
"Flying that structure behind the banner of the 4IR may well create the necessary pizzazz and profile," he notes. "However, it is essential to ensure that practical interventions ensue, to make sure policies and practices are grappled with and are grounded in the realities of the South African context, even where they may be enriched and informed by international good practice."
As the ministry appointed to coordinate government's 4IR programme, the Department of Communications, together with a secretariat of officials of various national departments, will provide the commission with operational support.
Ramaphosa will chair the commission, while professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg, will serve as deputy chair. Marwala's expertise spans the theory and application of artificial intelligence, to engineering, computer science, finance, social science and medicine.
The commission is expected to have its inaugural meeting with the president once the minister of communications has convened an induction session of the appointed members.
Commenting on what should be first on the commission's to-do list, Lewis points out the terms of reference only call for the commission to meet twice a year, which gives little scope for it to become a working structure with real impact.
However, it has been empowered to develop an integrated national 4IR strategy, backed by a research programme and an institutional framework, to enhance competitiveness, to address issues pertaining to skills development and the future of work, he states. "...if it is able to put real rubber on the road, it might make a substantive impact on the economy and society."
According to the Presidency, the commission has attracted members from different sectors of society and reflect a balance in gender, youth, labour and business, including digital start-ups and digital entrepreneurships.
Notably on the list of members is Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub. He has been at the helm at Vodacom since 2013.
"It is an honour to have been invited by the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, to join the Presidential Commission on the fourth industrial revolution," says Joosub. "I look forward to playing my part in the commission, which will need to make a number of important decisions so that South Africa does not get left behind in adopting technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution. This includes ultimately shaping the nation's preparedness for the jobs of the future and the role of education in this process."
Other ICT industry heavyweights include founder and chairman of Convergence Partners Andile Ngcaba; MultiChoice Group CEO Calvo Mawela; Charmaine Houvet, public policy director Africa at Cisco; and Leon Rolls, president of Progressive Blacks in ICT (PBICT).
The PBICT says its mission is to ensure black people have full access to the ICT sector.
Rolls, a former member of fellow lobby group, the Black IT Forum, has been vocal about the representation of small, medium and micro-sized enterprises and black people in ICT.