South Africa’s draft AI strategy needs more work, say pundits

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 22 Apr 2024
South Africa has finally set the stage for its national AI strategy.
South Africa has finally set the stage for its national AI strategy.

South Africa’s proposed draft national AI plan discussion document has drawn mixed reactions from pundits, with some feeling it is limited in various respects.

The document, dated October 2023, was unveiled at the recently-held 2024 National AI Government Summit hosted by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.

The summit served as a platform for dialogue on the proposed draft, with the aim to get various industry stakeholders onboard, and provide ideas and suggestions.

The plan sets out a draft strategy for what AI would be like for the country, and tries to determine how AI could be used from political, economic and military perspectives. It looks at possible investments, the opportunities and challenges, what governance and regulation would look like, and the priority focus areas.

Some participants felt the discussion document has major gaps and shouldn’t have been published in its current form.

Lucien Pierce, partner at Phukubje Pierce Masithela Attorneys, says on LinkedIn that the plan is disappointing because it is lengthy, contains too much jargon, is riddled with errors and, at times, seems to have unfinished thoughts.

Pierce points out that while it does hint at some sort of data sovereignty, it makes no mention of the Draft National Data and Cloud Policy, which is critical to facilitating the meaningful use of AI in South Africa.

He writes: “The document is convoluted, complicated, lacks clear deliverables and fails to allocate responsibility for their delivery. It needs to be more practical, with crystal clear deliverables and no doubt about who is responsible for delivering what.

“My view is that, rather than stakeholders commenting on this highly-flawed draft AI plan, it should be completely reworked and released when it is in a more practical and improved form.”

Globally, policymakers are increasingly focusing on AI regulation, with the EU AI Act having just been passed. Regulation will ensure AI is created responsibly and ethically from the start, so as to ensure citizens, businesses and governments are protected from some of the potential AI risks.

The Government AI Readiness Index 2022, produced by Oxford Insights, shows SA ranks in 68th place out of 181 countries, despite having no published national AI strategy.

The report notes SA remains influential in the region due to its size, history and level of development and, like Rwanda, any AI strategy it puts forward has the potential to serve as model legislation for other countries with less internal capacity.

Nathan-Ross Adams, associate: AI, data and technology at law firm Michalsons, believes the fact the communications department hosted the summit and released the draft discussion document signals to the rest of the world that SA is taking AI seriously.

Adams notes that across the globe, there’s been a drive for countries and regions to first have a national AI strategy, which would then develop into policy and then the policy eventually informs regulation. This is currently being witnessed in the EU, UK and US.

“Over the past few years, a number of governments have released their strategies, and African governments like Kenya, Morocco, Egypt and Madagascar have released national AI strategies.

“Because SA is one of the economic hubs of Africa, the question became why aren’t we saying anything about AI? Why is government not releasing a strategy and preparing the youth and public, from a skills development perspective? There are AI projects that government is conducting…but there’s nothing being said from a national perspective.

Nathan-Ross Adams, associate: AI, data and technology at Michalsons.
Nathan-Ross Adams, associate: AI, data and technology at Michalsons.

“If SA didn’t say anything soon, it would really seem like – from an international community perspective – it’s disinterested in what’s happening globally with the AI movement.

“It seemed SA was really out of the loop and I think government couldn’t ignore it anymore, based on international conversations and the fact that the public and private sectors want to embrace this.”

Adams also notes the discussion document provides no link between it and the Draft National Data and Cloud Policy, and he stresses that data is the currency and lifeblood of AI.

“Where it currently is right now, the document is okay as a start but it’s just a start. There is a need for a significant amount of research, consulting industry experts on different parts of the document because there is a strong commercial part to it, which is good for the private sector.

“However, there is a need to look at what this means for ordinary South Africans, SMEs, etc – these areas are lacking and need improvement. There is also a lot of academic insight and reports from global consulting organisations, which is great from a global perspective, but isn’t contextual to SA’s reality.

“AI shouldn’t be adopted for AI’s sake. It needs to be adopted and aligned with the individual context of an organisation or the individual context of a country…it needs to be aligned with the other strategies that government has.

“My general outlook is positive because I’d rather have us say something about the technology and let the world know we are actually prioritising it, despite the issues the country faces.”

Professor Johan Steyn, founder of, describes the draft plan as a first line in the sand. The follow-up is to ensure it doesn’t take another two or three years before there is significant movement forward.

“I think the form is quite comprehensive and well thought through, so it’s an impressive document. There are times that it leans towards quite a bit of an academic discussion, but it was written by academics, so one can expect that.

“It is imperative that this plan is a cross-society initiative. Yes, we need the academics, we need government officials and AI practitioners, but we also need teachers and community leaders involved because it’s so easy to set up a plan that will not work, especially in some of our rural areas.”

Professor Johan Steyn, founder of (Photograph by Strike A Pose Studios)
Professor Johan Steyn, founder of (Photograph by Strike A Pose Studios)

Steyn’s biggest concern is around the educational system. “The plan rightly speaks about skills because that is foundational to this whole initiative – that we should stop relying on the so-called Global North.

“However, our school system is already lacking in the ability to produce enough learners who are ready for the workplace and ready for the right kind of tertiary education initiatives. Where I think this plan will fall flat is if there isn’t greater context around educating our youngsters. There should be handholding between this initiative and the minister of education, between tertiary educational institutions.

“I think the last two years of this craze around generative AI and large language models really put AI on the map. I think the proposed EU AI Act, which has been adopted by all EU member states, has a lot of good principles that we can utilise, even though it’s Euro-centric.

“It’s about time that we do it. I think we need to move with speed and collaborate with other African nations, and look at what has already been done in other places. I’m positive that this is a good start; we now need to pull this through and move with speed.”

Anish Kurien, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and acting director of the TUT AI hub, says even though SA is behind on AI policy, it ranks ahead in other areas.

“There are countries that have already published government strategies and policies in Africa…some countries are quite ahead. For SA, this summit was a way of formalising that.”

According to Kurien, some of the elements in the discussion document will eventually become part of the regulatory framework.