SITA won’t be closed down, says government

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 15 Nov 2019
Omega Shelembe, deputy director-general of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.
Omega Shelembe, deputy director-general of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.

The South African government is working to overhaul the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) Act.

This was revealed by Omega Shelembe, deputy director-general of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, during an interview with ITWeb.

Shelembe was discussing the measures government is taking to address the challenges SITA is facing.

The IT agency is under fire following accusations of corruption and lack of service delivery, among other issues.

Faced with these challenges, Members of Parliament have reportedly called for SITA to be closed, as it is failing to fix IT systems at several government departments.

However, SITA acting CEO Ntutule Tshenye told ITWeb this week that the majority of the challenges besetting the agency are as a result of unprecedented budget constraints.

The Department of Home Affairs has been vocal in its criticism of SITA, regularly blaming the IT agency for the outages it frequently suffers, thereby inhibiting service delivery to citizens.

SITA was established as a result of the conditions contained in the SITA Act (Act 88 of 1998) and registered with the Registrar of Companies on 29 January 1999. The company came into operation on 4 April 1999.

Bad move

However, Shelembe, while admitting to the challenges SITA is facing, said closing down the agency will not be a good idea.

He said the department is taking a number of measures to deliver what he dubs a “SITA of the future”. One of these measures is overhauling the SITA Act, he noted.

“SITA operates in terms of the SITA Act, which governs how it procures services in government. It is that law that we are reviewing and almost overhauling. The existing law needs to be overhauled to make the future of SITA possible,” Shelembe said.

He acknowledged the frustration with SITA across government is not new. “It happens now and again with different government departments that will not be happy with the service it would have received at a particular point in time.

“We have been aware of this general dissatisfaction about SITA. So we agree to some degree. However, that does not necessarily mean this has to bring us to a situation where we say SITA must be shut down.”

He explained that in 2017, the department proposed the “rationalisation or repurposing” of SITA to find a way for the agency to be able to deal with the problems it is facing in servicing other government departments.

“The SITA problems manifest themselves in a whole lot of ways. Sometimes the systems are down, or at times there will be system capacity issues which require revitalising SITA services. Sometimes these issues arise because SITA has, over the years, focused almost just on procuring and as a buyer for government.

“There is so much value we need to create for SITA rather than allowing every government department to run their own IT systems,” he said.

When SITA was founded, Shelembe said, among other things, it had to deal with the economies of scale of purchasing as one government. As you do that, he added, it creates an opportunity to deploy systems that are interoperable.

“So if you allow everyone to go around and buy systems of their own, we are not going to be able to do the digital transformation programme that we want to. Our view is if everybody just goes around and procures their own systems, how are we then going to be able to make sure these systems talk to one another? Big data can only be a realisable dream if we are able to have systems that can talk to one another.”

If that is not possible, he said, then digital transformation is going to be very difficult for government.

Let’s work together

At every moment, there will always be a department or two that has issues with SITA, Shelembe said. “If you recall, there was once a time when the Department of Higher Education had problems with SITA when we were unable to certificate TVET college students. It was an IT problem related to SITA services.”

However, he said, through a co-operative process, that problem no longer exists today because the department co-operated and assisted SITA to resolve it.

At that time, there were over 100 000 outstanding certificates but today there is no outstanding certificate, he noted.

“So we come across these challenges every now and then; and when a particular department is experiencing a problem, they always say they want to be exempted from utilising SITA services.”

According to Shelembe, the problem SITA has is maintaining old legacy systems on behalf of the rest of government.

The concern arises because government will have to make a decision either to continuously do patchwork on these old systems, or to buy new things that can provide new innovations and capabilities, he noted.

“Our view is if we allow everyone to procure for themselves, we will actually be amplifying the funding concerns, whereas if everybody were to pool their resources together, it will be better.

“Because we are faced with a tight financial situation, government is not going to be in a position to provide new funding. We are going to have to do with the existing funding. Possibilities only arise when we pool our funding together – when we are able to not only maintain the old systems but start investing in new systems as well as new ones which make digital transformation a possibility.”

Talking corruption

Regarding corruption allegations, he said previous CEO Setumo Mohapi is on record as saying cleaning up corruption at SITA is under way.

“Corruption is not a new thing at SITA and as we say, it takes two to tango. The corruption also includes other government departments and service providers. The clean-up is happening and we are aware of these problems,” said Shelembe.

However, he believes with the new repurposed SITA, most of these incidences will fall away automatically because of the way SITA will be in the future.

Currently, as SITA stands, it is a procurer for the rest of government, he noted, adding the repurposing says SITA must become a true IT company of the state.

“If you are a true company, then you don’t start at the buying level – you start at a level where you do your own R&D and innovation. It’s only through that we can start talking about the possibilities of localising some of these technologies, otherwise we will continuously be importing.”

However, this will not happen overnight, Shelembe said. “We do imagine SITA forming all sorts of partnerships, not only with the private sector but also with other state-owned enterprises, such as the CSIR, which does a lot of IT-related staff.

“We are also saying if SITA wants to achieve digital transformation, it must take the responsibility for cyber security in government. So, the SITA of the future will also deal with issues relating to that.”

He added SITA will be integral in leading government’s digital transformation – availing government services online to citizens, and ensuring system interoperability so that citizens do not have to submit new information whenever they interact with government. Individuals must have one port of entry with government, he said.

“It’s going to be a journey and we are willing to take this journey. Unfortunately, this requires legislative changes which we are working on right now as the department.”