ICT pundits hope SONA goes beyond ‘future intentions’
Since taking office in 2018, president Cyril Ramaphosa has been sure to mention ICT sector issues like spectrum, digital skills and the popularised buzzword – fourth industrial revolution (4IR) – in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) speeches.
However, the time for future intentions and strategies is long past, states Arthur Goldstuck, CEO of World Wide Worx, adding the sector would like to hear action and delivery.
SONA, which takes place tonight at 7pm, is the annual event that sees the president respond to burning issues, unpack government progress over the past year and outline plans for the year ahead.
Top of the agenda is likely to be issues such as load-shedding, a slowing economy, unemployment and the lack of basic services. But ICT stakeholders will also look for answers in regards to how the current administration plans to address some industry pain points.
Last time, industry analysts felt Ramaphosa’s SONA was a bit out of touch, with him choosing to relay his smart city dream instead of detailing practical solutions for the sector the president deems key for social and economic development.
Goldstuck believes the ICT sector wants specifics. For example, what is government planning to do about spectrum allocation and when, he stresses. “What exactly is government planning to do about job creation and when? What exactly is government planning to do about skills development for the technologies underlying 4IR and when?”
Asked if he thinks technology will take centre stage this time around, Goldstuck says: “We will probably hear lip service paid to technology as being front and centre of the government agenda, but will not see much evidence for that truly being the case.”
Mark Walker, IDC associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa, highlights a few areas the sector would like to hear about in tonight’s SONA, including incentives for growth, to make it easier to do business in SA: “Removal of unnecessary or burdensome regulation, tax and duty exemptions on ICT equipment and services, public-private partnerships to enable access in underserved areas, increased collaboration with global players, skills development bursaries and investment in training institutions and apprenticeships.”
For Tanja Lategan, Enlight Strategic CEO, digital transformation should be high on Ramaphosa’s SONA agenda.
The reason, says Lategan, is that the South African public as well as global and local investors are rapidly losing patience with the president, and one way he can begin to reverse this sentiment is by making digital transformation in government departments and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) a major priority.
“With the fiscus stretched tight, government needs to find ways to reduce spending,” she says. “By investing in digital transformation, it can make its various departments more efficient, saving time and money. The ordinary South Africans who have to deal with them will also benefit, giving them more time to focus on tasks that rather contribute to the economy.”
Lategan explains there may be some resistance to digital transformation, especially among union members who fear jobs will be automated and lost as a result.
However, these fears are largely overblown and taken out of context, she points out.
“Banking, insurance and real estate are all industries that have faced massive digital disruption over the past decade,” she says. “But they have also all experienced job growth over the past year because they have embraced digital transformation. There’s no reason why the same couldn’t happen for SOEs.
“Far from destroying industries, technology can aid in their overall growth, resulting in increased job opportunities. President Ramaphosa would do well to bear that in mind and commit government to digital transformation, while equipping state and SOE workers with the tools they need to make the most of it.”
Over the past year, 4IR has been hyped up by the president and his administration, dedicating attention to all things Industry 4.0.
Ramaphosa even spearheaded the establishment of the Presidential 4IR Commission, which is mandated to advise government on 4IR policies, develop a framework for implementation of a multi-sectoral 4IR strategy, and coordinate, monitor and evaluate multi-sectorial initiatives that will position SA as a globally competitive player in 4IR.
Goldstuck says the 4IR agenda is still just talk, so far. “The digital revolution can only be embraced by walk-walk, not by talk-talk. In the same way, all the talk we've heard over the years about broadband rollout has had little impact on universal access. Access has grown despite government, not because of government, thanks to the efforts of mobile operators and fibre installers.”
Lulama Qongqo, investment analyst at Mergence Investment Managers, is of the view it is still too soon to determine meaningful progress in regards to SA’s 4IR.
The 4IR Commission is yet to provide the president with a plan, stresses Qongqo. “Having a plan is only a fraction of what a country needs to do to be able to embark on a 4IR journey, so we have a long way to go before we can genuinely say there is meaningful progress on that front.
“I hope the president will share with us a clear and practical technological strategy that is suitable for our demographics, as we do have a significant portion of our population that would be a challenge to integrate into a 4IR plan; we also need to have a plan for those people.”
The investment analyst advises that primary and secondary schools and TVET colleges need to be improved before the country can be convinced it is fully capable of succeeding in 4IR.
“The tech sector is facing a significant challenge beyond access to opportunities and ease of doing business: the brain drain. SA tech companies compete with global companies for talent, over and above poaching from each other. Ironically, tech businesses are driven by people, and our country is losing a lot of talent – I don’t think this will be addressed and I struggle to be optimistic about our tech ambitions as a country without the talent.”
Tips for Ramaphosa
Walker points out awareness of technology as an essential pillar of South African society has been achieved and progress has been made to some extent in spectrum allocation and regulatory areas.
This, he advises, needs to be accelerated and the gaps between design and actuality must be addressed in e-government, skill development, regulation, industry development and ICT use.
Goldstuck saystechnology should be about enabling access, skills and opportunities that will be relevant in the next decade.
“Coding for its own sake is a dead-end if it is not linked to a career path, and government eases the route to that career path. Technology access is not the same as skills, and skills in themselves don't provide technology access.
“We need a 360-degree approach to the jobs, skills and enablement environment of the future, but we can start immediately by creating a more learning-friendly, business-friendly and jobs-friendly environment.
“Numerous proposals have been made over the years, numerous projects have been put on the backburner, and numerous people are ready to get stuck in. Please don't dismiss all of us again with sweet words about future intentions,” he pleads.