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SONA: Ramaphosa’s smart city dream becomes ‘reality in the making’

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 12 Feb 2021

Two years after pronouncing his dream for a new South African city driven by smart technologies, president Cyril Ramaphosa says much progress has been made to bring this to life.

During the first hybrid State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday night, Ramaphosa said when he spoke about the dream of building new post-Apartheid cities driven by smart technologies, many people laughed and scoffed at the idea.

However, these cities are being conceptualised in a number of places in the country, in a number of provinces, he said. “The Lanseria Smart City, the first new city to be built in a democratic South Africa, is now a reality in the making.

“The draft master plan for this smart city – which will become home to between 350 000 to 500 000 people within the next decade – was completed in November 2020 and is now out for public comment.

“This is reality, it is happening. We now have a number of local government structures cooperating to build this city.”

In his SONA in 2019, Ramaphosa indicated the smart city dreams were fuelled by conversations with some members of his executive as well as Chinese president Xi Jinping, who indicated that China is building a new Beijing.

He said at the time: “Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution? I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this prospect.”

Last year, the president stated: “It [the city] will not only be smart and 5G-ready, but will be a leading benchmark for green infrastructure, both continentally and internationally.”

This year, Ramaphosa's address focused mainly on some of government’s overriding priorities for 2021, namely defeating the COVID-19 pandemic, accelerating economic recovery, implementing economic reforms for job creation and inclusive growth, as well as fighting corruption and strengthening the state.

Building smart cities vs making cities smart

Tijs van den Brink, advisory group director for digital services and smart asset management at Royal HaskoningDHV, believes SA should be making cities smart, rather than building new smart cities.

Van den Brink says that applying the principles of smart cities to existing cities can address issues of service delivery and inequality in SA, while navigating the tough economic climate.

“Smart cities put people and the environment at the heart of high-tech developments that use data and technology (digital transformation) to drive service delivery and quality-of-life improvements for residents.

“But to support these efficiencies, flagship smart cities often put the technology at the centre and want to implement all innovations at once, which comes with high upfront capital investments that are recovered through higher property values and rentals. This immediately excludes the majority of the population from ever being able to afford to live in a smart city.”

According to Van den Brink, COVID-19 has highlighted underlying vulnerabilities that undermine South African citizens’ quality of life. These include growing inequality, limited and/or aging infrastructure, and a shortage of public resources to address these challenges – but applying smart city principles to all cities, and not only flagship projects, can help address some of these vulnerabilities.

He points out that in a country with one of the greatest inequality gaps, everything possible needs to be done to guard against deepening the chasm between lower and higher income groups.

“The ability to earn a return on high smart city investments depends on external factors, like economic downturns and requirements to include social housing. These factors can make smart city flagship projects unviable, as was the case with the shelved Chinese-led development in Gauteng.

“What’s more, flagship smart cities are not always replicable – technologies piloted in new-build projects can’t always be retrofitted to existing infrastructure.

“However, there is immense opportunity – that is both scalable and replicable – in making existing cities smarter, more people-centric, and better able to address some of the vulnerabilities mentioned earlier.”

Van den Brink proposes three steps to making South African cities smarter: gathering data, rapid experimentation, and learning from and partnering with the private sector.

“Ultimately, making our cities smarter is a sustainable and impactful way to improve quality of life within urban areas. Although often associated with wealthy areas, the smart city concept can be applied to lower-income areas, to unlock the transformative impact that technology can have on people’s quality of life.”

Electronic visa regime

Ramaphosa also stated that as international travel starts to recover in the wake of COVID-19, government will undertake a full rollout of electronic visas (e-visas) to visitors from China, India, Nigeria, Kenya and 10 other countries.

“Work is under way with the relevant departments to reform our visa and immigration regime to attract skills and grow the tourism sector.

“The revised list of critical skills will be published for public comment by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) within one week to ensure the final version reflects the skills needed by the economy.”

The president first mentioned the idea of e-visas in SA back in 2018, saying government would implement such a system “soon”.

The implementation of an e-visa system is in line with the implementation of key economic reforms aimed at unlocking investment in important growth sectors, such as tourism.

In December 2019, the home affairs department announced plans to pilot the e-visa system in 2020, revealing China, India and Nigeria as the nations that would test out the new system. It was also piloted in Kenya.

According to the DHA, the decision to introduce e-visas was informed by observable benefits of this system, adding it is reliable, client-friendly and convenient for visa applicants, airlines, trading partners and home affairs officials.

“Once fully rolled out, prospective visitors will apply online for visas, at home, office or place of work. It will lessen administrative burdens, including those involved in receiving applicants at visa offices, printing visa stickers and returning passports to applicants,” the department said at the time.