Transform or die: The crossroad facing the South African ICT sector
The message is clear: the ICT industry in SA must demonstrate significant progress in the transformation stakes or suffer the consequences. So say the likes of Andile Ngcaba and Hasmukh Gajjar.
Is transformation (in the sense that these two gentlemen intend) possible in a fledgling democracy? The ideals are so simple: everyone has equal rights, there will be no discrimination and we all work together "happily ever after". But progress appears slow, especially to those who wish to benefit from the process. How then shall we facilitate progress? Through draconian laws? Through affirmative action?
It would certainly help if we all understood the objective. How do we know when we have achieved the goal? Do we want to be an African society, or would we prefer to model ourselves on American, European or Asian economies? Maybe we want to be all of them rolled into one!
There are a few hurdles impeding our progress - we have pre-conditioned, ingrained thinking that closes our minds to new concepts, we have politics played for no reason other than politics itself, and we find it hard to locate honest examples to lead our way. All around the world, we see and hear a constant stream of bad news: war, crime, corruption, pollution, drought, starvation and disease. How can we be expected to transform in the face of such obstacles?
There is, of course, a simple economic reality: no growth equals no money. All the rhetoric, all the regulation will mean nothing if we do not generate the economic resources to fuel the development of our society. It is not, and never will be sufficient to take the wealth of one group and give it to another. We can applaud the basic economic policies applied by the South African government over the last eight years. Apart from the recent surge in the inflation rate, we have an economic model that is the envy of Africa.
But, there are some important ingredients missing from the recipe, principally investment (both domestic and foreign), and we appear to be over-dependent on external influences (or perhaps are taking insufficient cognisance of external perceptions). That "but" exists because we fail to present a united front. Indeed, it often seems that our basic philosophy is division, division, division.
While understanding (and vigorously defending) the rights of each to individual thought and belief, we cannot overlook the principle that enables communities to thrive and grow, the principle of working together. Yet, we have a multiplicity of languages, a multiplicity of political parties, a multiplicity of business bodies, a multiplicity of community groups and a multiplicity of labour organisations. Our continent`s recent history shows a remarkable tendency towards such differences, resulting in squabbles that retard any sort of growth or development.
Surely there is national pride? Are we not all Proudly South African, united behind a new flag? Are we not all stirred by at least a part of our national anthem? Or are we one nation divided by 11 languages, by 11 histories?
Why is the ICT sector such a soft target for the activists? Well, because it is a shambles, that`s why! All around the world, the "idol" of the 1980s and 1990s is seen to have feet of clay and we are no different at the southern tip of Africa. After the artificial bubble of the Y2K and dot-com era, we still show too much respect for the "fallen idols". The industry is populated with hype, with false expectations, with consultants, and has set itself up to be the target of those who either missed the boat or drowned because they were on it when it sank. Yet, we still believe that the sector is the "golden goose", that we can charge massive licence fees as we introduce competition to state monopolies, that we can create universal access by regulation, that there are thousands of jobs to be had in ICT companies.
In SA, we have a plethora of industry associations whose members are a minority of the thousands of companies operating in the sector. In failing to combine their resources, to work together to create reliable statistics, to market themselves collectively, to present objective views to governments and investors, these "representatives" have fuelled the perception that the industry is failing to meet the challenges of the 21st century. There persists a "me first" mentality that places the fear of giving something away to a competitor above the benefits of sharing knowledge and resources.
We need to step back and take a long, hard look at the realities, so that we can produce new and well-founded targets, based on objective research. The ISETT SETA has to move away from the much-heralded report on the ICT labour market, which contains some extremely dangerous assumptions (much like assuming that the motor industry is responsible for all driver training and must make transport available to all). The initiatives being promoted by DTI following the SAITIS Project and its offspring activities need to be nurtured and fertilised, particularly the Youth Internship Project, the ICT Diffusion opportunities and the SAVANT project.
Government and business need to take immediate steps to overcome the fragmented approach to the sector that exists in both camps. Government should create a single, functional ICT task force, rather than the mishmash of International Advisory Council, National Commission, Sector Summit, State IT Agency, Executive Forum. And business should follow the example of the leading associations around the world - in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, where effective representation is the order of the day through acknowledged partnerships between private and public sectors.
Let us work together to break down entrenched attitudes that are holding us back. A better understanding of the part played by ownership of capital, of the need for proper technical knowledge and the instilling of business attitudes and business skills into technical students will all help to overcome the problems of geography, of infrastructure and the cost of access. We have non-negotiable needs: the ICT industry is not an end in itself but will make a vital contribution to development and growth of the overall economy. ICT`s are tools to be used in the production of wealth, they are not wealth in themselves.
The way forward requires that we combine forces, to create a public/private partnership based on trust and respect instead of threat and regulation. We need to focus on creating new markets, internally through sensible procurement policies and externally through targeting suitable opportunities (such as those presented by NEPAD). An essential and urgent need is to reform the structure of education and training by abandoning failed models and delivering on the real intention of the skills development legislation. By adopting radical approaches that will eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy, we will encourage investment.
Lastly, we must acknowledge the real role of ICT in our community. Only by adopting liberal policies that encourage open access will we see the potential that this sector has for the community as a whole. Beware industry moguls bearing gifts! Beware political idealists holding the industry to ransom! Beware sheer greed that has seen the few profit from the many, regardless of ethnic or cultural background! Beware cyber inspectors. ICT is a truly international industry, recognising few boundaries, able to move production almost at a whim to any "connected" location. We cannot force it into a local mould, rather we must seek ways to contribute to its global nature, using the talents and resources with which we are blessed.