The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) hosted a dialogue with the ICT sector on 7 December 2021. This was part of a series of dialogues with various sectors, which will culminate in a comprehensive “Blueprint for rejuvenating South Africa’s economy”.
The dialogue with the ICT sector tried to answer two questions, primarily:
What is South Africa doing wrong and how do we correct it?
How do we accelerate our economic growth trajectory?
The dialogue identified several challenges. These included:
The World Bank has shown that the digital economy can stimulate South Africa’s GDP significantly. The demand for data is exploding, especially in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic.
South Africa is lagging far behind other countries in terms of infrastructure deployment, especially in fibre (but also in wireless and mobile). Some other African countries are adapting faster. It is critical that we stimulate investment by not over-regulating.
Government must facilitate digital infrastructure development and deployment through regulations that are not too prohibitive; for example, cell phone towers require town planning exercises, and regulatory approval even though government owns a lot of land.
There is a plethora of old policies, developed more than a decade ago, which need review or are not being implemented.
In spectrum release, we need to balance avoiding a free-for-all approach with allowing for small providers in rural areas to be innovative. Spectrum auction licence conditions must ensure that broadband can be accessible to all. There needs to be a review done mid-way.
One of the biggest impediments is the state’s capacity and inclination for speed and urgency in a sector with rapidly changing technologies; particularly municipalities and SANRAL are difficult to access. ICASA takes 12 to 18 months to transfer licences.
There is often a lack of political and managerial will within government to focus and to implement the processes which already exist. It is important to get the right people in government in the right positions, with the right skills, and to hold them accountable for delivery.
Fuel shortages and the imminent job losses as a result of the fourth industrial revolution are key constraints in the sector.
India, the UK and the USA all have their context-specific approaches to digital inclusion models but South Africa’s approach is still not clear. We need to be clear on how we can deliver affordable connectivity and also devices; and how platforms for local content can be developed to stimulate demand.
Commercial and technological supply models need to be developed to extend infrastructure to peri-urban areas. These could be subsidised. This will also increase the market size.
How do we service SMMEs in rural areas to stimulate growth?
Security is another problem; for example, battery theft from cell phone towers.
Some of the recommendations included:
Government should benchmark against global standards because the view in South Africa is rather myopic. These benchmarking studies are often done but not implemented.
Sub-Saharan Africa needs data centres, cell phone towers, etc. There are backlogs compared to other regions. Cloud computing can also offer opportunities given that there are supply constraints.
Spectrum should be released without delay.
There is a need to drive the platform economy because of the multiplier effect, for example, delivery businesses and SMMEs. We need to create platforms for non-specialists rather than just specialist IT companies.
Regulatory certainty is important. Policies must be clarified and implemented. Government must streamline the way that it engages with industry, especially municipalities.
Tech provision and rapid deployment must be written into legislation as soon as possible.
Education trajectories need to be more agile. These can include short courses which are industry-aligned to generate skills, which can quickly be monitised and allow people to enter and exit the system at multiple points.
It is important to look at the high-end data science needed for innovation.
Reskilling is also important given imminent job losses due to new technology.
We are not creating enough entrepreneurs. IT should not be seen as a specific sector only but rather a general-purpose technology that can pull innovation in all sectors together.
It is important to look at reducing the cost of devices through tax breaks, etc.
More intergovernmental collaboration and sectoral patriotic compacts were suggested that put broad public interest above sectoral interests.
Regulations need to be better resourced. Over-regulation should be avoided. More self-regulation could be considered.
A full report on the deliberations will be released in due course.