Govt finally turns attention to ICT

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 20 Feb 2018
President Cyril Ramaphosa's government plans to establish a commission dedicated to ICT.
President Cyril Ramaphosa's government plans to establish a commission dedicated to ICT.

While SA is often commended for its massive potential in the ICT arena, stakeholders warn that a lack of understanding from government stifles this potential.

The miniscule mention of ICT in past reports on the status of the nation appeared to also highlight government's lack of understanding of the role the sector plays in the local economy.

However, delivering his inaugural State of the Nation Address in Parliament on Friday, president Cyril Ramaphosa gave ICT some much-needed attention by announcing some of government's plans aimed at taking advantage of rapid technological change.

Ramaphosa's announcement of plans to establish an ICT commission is regarded as one of the signs that government is taking steps to ensure capabilities in science, technology and innovation are developed.

According to the president, government will "soon establish a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission, which will include the private sector and civil society", to ensure the country is in a position to seize the opportunities and manage the challenges of rapid advances in ICT.

Thecla Mbongue, senior research analyst at Ovum, believes setting up a unit dedicated to digital transformation is a sign that Ramaphosa is taking ICT not only seriously but to the high level it is meant to be.

"We have to bear in mind that beyond his business background, president Ramaphosa has for a long time been a board member for telecoms group MTN, which puts him in a good position to assess how digital transformation is important to every sector of the country's economy."

ICT veteran and IITPSA programme consultant Adrian Schofield points out that establishing the commission signals the president's wishes to establish a holistic view of the country's ability to take advantage of technology, identify the obstructions to progress and recommend a way forward.

According to Schofield, bearing in mind the current "noise" about the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on the world of work, it makes some sense to investigate the likely upside and downside of its effects on SA.

"If this commission had been in place during (or instead of) the white paper process, it could have taken a more reasoned and authoritative view on the issues facing South Africa's patchy progress with ICTs and provided government with a much better legislative framework."

Economic transformation

Frost & Sullivan's Naila Govan-Vassen, senior industry analyst for ICT in the Middle East and Africa, is of the view that a digital industrial commission can aid in accelerating the radical transformation in SA by driving economic growth, creating jobs and improving the national education system.

Govan-Vassen, however, adds it will be paramount that the commission is comprised of key ICT stakeholders, both in the public and private sectors as well as civil society, to help the country achieve its economic and socio-economic goals.

"Establishing a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission is the best approach to drive communication growth and pave the way for digital transformation.

"Ubiquitous and affordable connectivity will be the key pillar to move towards industry 4.0 development. However, the first and foremost objective of the commission should be to ensure proper planning is done around the national broadband plan, ICT white paper implementation plans, the digital migration, and spectrum management."

She advises that the role of the public sector should focus predominantly on launching policy and regulations that enable faster deployment of ICT plans while ensuring collaboration across all stakeholders.

"So far, the government has failed to appoint a lead agency to drive the implementation of the national broadband plan (SA Connect), and while a commission of this sort is long overdue, the new president will have to ensure the commission carries out and performs its mandate effectively. "

Finding purpose

Although there are no timelines as to when this commission will be established, Mbongue says Ovum expects it to play more of a mediation and advisory role to government units but also between ICT sector stakeholders.

"We hope, however, that it will not play a redundant role and just duplicate actions and roles already covered by the regulator or the Department of Communications (DOC)."

Schofield also wonders if the commission will be able to turn back the tide of poor decisions and inappropriate legislation flowing from the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) and the DOC.

He believes Ramaphosa needs all the help he can get; as such a commission is a means of harnessing key stakeholders into a managed process of identifying and removing blockages.

"Hopefully, this commission is part of a comprehensive plan to rationalise the wastage of the two departments (DTPS and DOC) and develop more appropriate education interventions to meet the skills requirements of the 4th IR [fourth industrial revolution]. The next few weeks of the budget presentations may fill in some of the gaps."