SA's ICT industry in 50 years' time

Computer Society of SA president Rabelani Dagada presented his view of the future of SA's ICT industry at the IT Personality of the Year CSSA President's Award breakfast this morning.

Population growth rates in European and in some Asian countries are falling, and there are more adults in these countries than youth and children. This aging population phenomenon creates concern among investors, as an aging population creates serious challenges for sustained economic growth. I predict that during the next half a century, there will be a huge migration of investors to Africa, for three reasons.

Firstly, in 50 years' time, there will be more than two billion people in Africa, and this will constitute the biggest consumer market in the whole world. At the same time, advances in healthcare will lead to a dropping child mortality rate and decreased deaths cause by HIV/Aids.

Secondly, poverty levels in Africa will plunge considerably, and the concomitant growth of a middle class will generate a large and attractive market.

Thirdly, in 25 years' time, there will be substantially fewer working people in Europe and Asia. Actually, Africa will have around 1.87 billion people of working age in 50 years' time. In other words, Africa is the only place in the world where 74% of the population will be of working age.

Developments across the African continent will drive economic growth in SA, and in the medium- to long-term, this should lead to employment. Although poverty levels will be reduced, the Gini coefficient will increase substantially in the short-term. This inequality in growth can be attributed to lack of skills; the economy will reward those who are more skilled much more, and this will, in all probability, lead to violent protests and tragedies similar to the one experienced in Marikana.

No jobs

Although the South African economy will be growing in terms of the gross domestic product (GDP) during the next 15 years, only a few jobs will be created. However, in the medium- (25 years) to long-term (50 years), the economy will start to produce jobs due to the migration of direct investments to Africa. Although the migration of direct investment to Africa will be a good phenomenon, I fear SA will be caught unprepared and may not seize the employment opportunities, due to a lack of skills, especially in the field of ICT.

SA, like many other African nations, is experiencing a stunning shortage of ICT skills.

The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that ICT will play a prominent role in three critical domains in Africa, ie, agricultural biotechnology, health innovation systems, and energy (particularly low-carbon, climate-sensitive technologies).

While, globally, there is a lack of ICT capacity, SA, like many other African nations, is experiencing a stunning shortage of skills. This will dearly cost the economies of the country, should the situation remain unimproved. ICT skills are so important to the economy because, in effect, they produce ICT goods and services, which are applied in myriad business and social environments. The contribution that ICT skills makes to countries' development, as well as that of the individual citizens' is very well documented in various research studies.

While it may not be disputed that ICTs are vital in today's industrial production, the effective use of the technologies is what is more important for productivity and economic growth. Hence, the lack of the ICT skills, if not addressed swiftly, is likely to erode the potential economic development of this country.

The question is, what causes the shortage of ICT skills and how can this be addressed in SA? Concerns have been raised that SA's institutions of higher learning are not producing sufficient numbers of graduates with the required levels of ICT skills to boost productivity and competitive products, in keeping with international trends. ICT-trained employees are more efficient; they work quicker and make fewer mistakes, hence they are more productive. The lack of ICT skills in the country has been exacerbated by the fact that between 1994 and 2009, the ANC government neglected the technical colleges, which could equip the masses with ICT skills.

College paralysis

The technical colleges sector was characterised by paralysis, high student dropout and a high failure rate. The current minister of higher education, Dr Blade Nzimande, has, however, shown some noteworthy interest in technical colleges, and one hopes he will succeed in revitalising them in order to produce the artisans and technical skills that SA really needs to re-industrialise the economy.

Another factor blamed for the inadequacy of the skills in the country is poor teacher training for mathematics, sciences and IT in public education. Many 'matriculants' cannot enrol at university to study computer science courses due to poor performance in science subjects.

How then should the shortage of ICT skills be addressed? Before answering the question, it should be noted that these problems may not be easy to address, as the phenomenon may be made more complicated due to rapid change of technologies. The business world today has to keep abreast with changes if the economy is to seize the opportunities brought in due to innovations. In order to keep abreast with the rapid change of innovations, SA must have working ICT policies in place, infrastructure, and an improved level of education. ICT has played a fundamental role in the country's services sector, and going forward, ICT will contribute immensely to the revival of the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

In recent history, the much-celebrated Asian economic growth has pointed to a significant connection between ICT and education. Well-crafted and implemented ICT and education policies played a critical role in protracting the extraordinary rate of Asian economic development. If you look at two Asian countries - South Korea and Vietnam - you would notice they don't have desirable histories. They were once subjugated by foreign powers, military autocracy, and wars. Their economies were backward and mainly relied on agriculture. But both political and economic reforms led the two nations to massive economic development, which was powered by ICT and skilled labour.

ANC and cellphones

There are also a number of positive economic activities that took place in SA, despite the government's poor policy formulation and skills shortage. The growth of the cellphone industry happened without any plausible policy intervention. The then outgoing apartheid government and the ANC didn't take the potential of the cellphone industry seriously in terms of influencing the economic growth and enabling universal access to ICT services by the people in under-serviced areas. The ANC perceived cellphones as luxurious devices of the middle and upper classes. The ANC insisted that access to telecommunications by needy people would be achieved through fixed-line telephony. There were, nevertheless, some individuals who insisted that cellphones would yield more positive effects to all South Africans than television.

Many innovations related to mobile phones, mobile commerce and electronic commerce were pioneered or advanced in SA. The cellphone industry played a critical role as an enabler to develop and enhance the South African services sector. Wireless application services and mobile money are growing rapidly in SA. Lack of infrastructure, and crime, has led to many innovations in SA. In other words, government sluggishness drove the private sector to become more creative. For example, seeing that customers were extremely concerned about digital banking-related crimes, the South African banks reacted to these crimes swiftly and with lots of sophistication.

They have dedicated e-crime units and invest huge amounts of money on customer education. The spoof and phishing sites are removed from Web environments within 48 hours, while the perpetrators are tracked down speedily with the assistance of Interpol. These developments show that SA has the potential to perform wonders in its economic growth, given adequate ICT skills.

If SA implements its ICT policies, infrastructure, and improves the level of education, the country will be riding the Fourth Wave in the near future. The most fundamental question is: will the Fourth Wave lead to economic development and job creation? The answer is yes; it will lead to massive economic development in the medium- (25 years' time) to long-term (50 years' time). In the short-term, the South African economic trajectory will remain suppressed due to the lack of political will. The problem in SA is not the lack of planning and strategies, but rather the lack of implementation. With adequate ICT skills, the abundant availability and use of broadband will enable SA to reach the highest level of development - the Fourth Wave.

Development need

Having said all this, what then could be done to ensure adequate availability and the development of appropriate ICT skills in SA? Firstly, there is a need for development, promotion, and delivery of quality certification programmes in our universities and technical colleges. The ICT programmes offered at the institutions should, in future, be accredited by the Computer Society of South Africa (CSSA). The CSSA was established more than 50 years ago to drive professionalism, and it has recently been recognised by the South African Qualification Authority as a professional body.

Basically, the aim of CSSA is to promote the interests of ICT professionals. As such, the society actively engages with commerce, industry and government in order to influence policy formulation on behalf of both its own members and other stakeholders. The society also encourages the growth of professionalism, and the responsible and professional use of ICT throughout the South African economy. This means companies and/or organisations in SA would benefit, should they work with the CSSA practically to enhance ICT skills through continuing professional development.

Secondly, as the country is in need of qualifications development, especially in the IT sector, the CSSA should be in a position to assist with the development of the necessary qualification and quality assurance of assessment and training provision to support skills development. Companies should, therefore, have their ICT staff registered with the CSSA so they can have recourse in terms of poor performance.

Thirdly, to ensure the country has adequate supply of ICT skills, the government has to revitalise technical colleges, which have been neglected by the ANC government since 1994. It seems promising, though, since the minister of higher education has shown interest in revitalising them. The revival of the technical colleges will help to produce adequate technical skills, which SA really needs to boost the economy.

In a nutshell, since ICT skills are vital to the economic growth of this country in the 21st century, it is imperative that the lack of expertise is addressed speedily, or else the scarcity will continue to cost the economies of our nation in the next 50 years.

In conclusion, I look forward to working with you in building the ICT skills in Africa, and SA in particular. I want to take this opportunity to urge ICTs to prepare themselves for massive job opportunities that will be presented by the migration of direct investments to Africa, which I have mentioned earlier. You should engage in continuing professional development to take advantage of these opportunities.

Rabelani Dagada
fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations.

Rabelani Dagada is a fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations. He holds a master’s of computer-based education from the Rand Afrikaans University, a master’s of commerce in information systems from the University of the Witwatersrand, and a PhD in information systems from the University of South Africa. He is on Twitter: Rabelani_Dagada

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