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ICT pundits want to hear concrete plans during #SONA2024

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 08 Feb 2024
Pundits weigh in on ICT expectations ahead of the 2024 State of the Nation Address.
Pundits weigh in on ICT expectations ahead of the 2024 State of the Nation Address.

Since taking office, president Cyril Ramaphosa has not been one to shy away from grandiose statements about the potential of the ICT sector in advancing the SA’s aspirations.

This year marks Ramaphosa’s seventh State of the Nation Address (SONA) – the last one under the sixth administration – and also marks 30 years of the democratic dispensation.

Ramaphosa will this evening deliver the annual address at the Cape Town City Hall, before a joint sitting of the two houses of Parliament – the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces.

The address sets out government’s key policy objectives and deliverables for the year ahead, andmarks the official start of the Parliamentary programme.

SONA 2024 will be delivered against the backdrop of an economy that is battling to grow, youth unemployment, escalating crime levels and an unending power crisis.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will deliver his seventh and last SONA under the sixth administration.
President Cyril Ramaphosa will deliver his seventh and last SONA under the sixth administration.

While over the course of his SONAs, the president has spoken about 5G-ready smart cities, rapid broadband deployment, youth digital skills, spectrum allocation, and equipping school children with digital workbooks and textbooks on a tablet device, to name a few, ICT expectations prior to his addresses have been usually low.

This year is no different, with ICT sector pundits not too expectant, believing the sector will be glossed over once again during this evening’s address.

Mark Walker, associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC MEA, is of the view that ICT will again be a low priority for 2024 as it has been before.

“Understandably government has more pressing issues to address, but we strongly hope that ICT is used to enable efficiency, transparency, and accountability in government – whatever the overriding priority or issue may be.”

What’s to come?

With it being an election year, Walker says the public will likely hear lofty statements about plans for artificial intelligence in government to drive efficiency and security, growing the skills base through education initiatives in the technology sector, enablement of access to infrastructure and associated data services to underserved areas, and similar grand strategies.

“Of course, we would love to see these plans prioritised, dedicated funding allocated, and strong accountability instituted to ensure that actual execution and delivery occurs.”

Walker indicates that government has made some progress under the current administration; however, policy inconsistency, lack of accountability, ill-considered regulation, and poor leadership have created a retrogressive environment. This has meant the private sector has been hard-pressed to bridge the gaps, while navigating a tough economic and commercial environment.

“Ideally, [we] would like to hear concrete plans for further de-regulation of telecoms and labour and incentives for investment by international organisations,” notes Walker.

Similarly, Professor Rabelani Dagada, visiting professor of practice at the University of Johannesburg, says the president won’t mention that ICT is overregulated in South Africa.

He will not make commitments to correct this anomaly, expresses Dagada. “That is why there will be no Starlink satellite internet anytime soon in South Africa. Competition Commission and ICASA will continue to fight for the ICT regulatory turf and to confuse the market by issuing contradictory regulatory pronouncements.”

Good story tell

Despite the low expectations, Dagada believes this year the president will have a good story to tell with regards to the implementation of the ICT policy.

“During the last 15 years, two pertinent policy issues were outstanding – the allocation of high-demand spectrum and the migration from the outdated analogue to digital broadcasting technology.

The president lived up to his promise that high-demand spectrum would be allocated to mobile network operators after it was finally auctioned off in March 2022.

The allocation of spectrum by means of an auction was part of the state’s plans to boost the national fiscus as well enable mobile operators to speed up network rollouts for faster and more widespread high-speed data services, amid the digital economy acceleration.

In the case of spectrum allocation, the professor says while the government and the regulator should be commended for this, a lot of damage was already done because the delay to allocate the spectrum held back the country’s socio-economic development.

“It is my considered view that had it not been for these delays, access to ICT in South Africa would have been much advanced.”

Dagada stresses that a major factor that would hamstring maximum auction of the high-demand spectrum is the delay in the digital migration because spectrum allocation is dependent on the fast-tracking of digital migration.

Digital migration delays have been persistent over several years, and South Africa failed to meet the June 2015 deadline set by the International Telecommunication Union.

At some point, South Africa will eventually switch off the analogue broadcasting system, he states.

“There are appears to be some tangible progress though. On 31 July 2023, the minister of communications and digital technologies, Mondli Gungubele, switched-off the last analogue transmitter above MHz in Stellenbosch.

“This marked an important milestone towards the migration into digital era where telecommunications network operators would have full access to high-frequency spectrum. The new deadline for the final switch-off analogue technology in South Africa is 31 December 2024. Many previous deadlines were not met.”

Critical actions

Meanwhile, the City of Cape Town’s alderman James Vos says there are critical actions the president needs to announce in SONA2024 to unlock growth.

Among these is the modernisation of the visa application process by the Department of Home Affairs, to make it easier to travel to South Africa for tourism, business and work.

Vos says two years later after promise of a modernised process, the department sitting on almost 75 000 in unprocessed temporary residency visas, with an additional backlog of 44 000 in permanent residency permits.

The visa backlog is a strain on local industries, states the mayoral committee for economic growth.

“For example, our special purpose vehicle (SPV) partner in the call centre industry, CapeBPO, has noted that the current visa system is hindering critical knowledge transfer for numerous local jobs. The sector currently provides 80 000 jobs for Capetonians. If companies and other industry players were able to provide the necessary skills development, that number could increase exponentially in Cape Town and the rest of the country.

“Similarly, UVU Africa, the city's tech industry SPV, has emphasised the challenges in acquiring visas for delegates, prompting the relocation of events from Cape Town to other parts of Africa. My pursuit is fuelled by the determination to protect jobs and foster economic growth.

“In addition, would-be international travellers have found that the e-visa system is also largely ineffective.”

According to Vos, the remote worker visa that the president said at last year’s SONA was being introduced has not yet been. “I have pushed for this special visa for more than three years and provided national government with a proposal on how to go about enacting it.

“It is long past time for the Department of Home Affairs to properly lay out a detailed plan that addresses the crisis of our visa system and, importantly, to stick to that plan. This ineffectual, frustrating structure is driving down growth and job opportunities for the millions of South Africans who desperately need it.”

Alderman James Vos, Cape Town mayoral committee member for economic growth.
Alderman James Vos, Cape Town mayoral committee member for economic growth.