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Rejuvenating South Africa's economy - An ICT sector perspective

Copyright © 2021 Inclusive Society Institute 50 Long Street Cape Town, 8000 South Africa 235-515 NPO All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the permission in writing from the Inclusive Society Institute DISCLAIMER Views expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of the Inclusive Society Institute or those of their respective Board or Council members. All records and findings included in this report, originate from a panel discussion on developing a new economic blueprint for South Africa, which took place on 7 December 2021 Author: Olivia Main Editor: Daryl Swanepoel



Key barriers to growth

  • Slow-paced infrastructure development

  • Prohibitive regulation and policy

  • Floundering government capacity

  • Global benchmarking

  • Market-related skills shortages

  • Digital exclusion

  • Security breaches

Breaking the barriers to economic growth

  • Regulatory certainty

  • Fix backlogs

  • Public-private collaboration

  • Release spectrum

  • Inclusivity is key

  • Infrastructure development

  • Responsible investment



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Unlike most other sectors across the globe, the ICT sector has flourished during the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic has completely upended the way people function in the world, with an acceleration in the uptake of digital platforms and services. In South Africa, the total sector revenue (telecommunications, broadcasting and postal) increased by 2% from R238 billion in 2019 to R243 billion in 2020 (ICASA, 2021).

South African e-commerce alone grew by 66% in 2020, from R14 billion in 2018 to R30 billion. The industry’s value more than doubled within just two years. Although this trend seems to have taken a foothold in emerging markets, post-pandemic growth rates are expected to be more subdued (Business Insider, 2021).

The sudden massive transition from largely in-person meetings and transactions to the current trend of online engagement has unleashed a tsunami of Covid-19-fuelled digitalisation. Government, business and individuals have scrambled to implement and streamline digital processes, moving towards a “blended” approach including both in-person and online operating methods. From work-from-home requirements and online schooling and payments, to e-commerce, we have been forced to speed up the pace of technology growth and regulation. Digital looks set to be the new normal.

These trends have brought with them many benefits such as economic growth and improved health care systems, opportunities for investment and public-private collaboration. According to the South Africa E-Commerce Market Size, Forecast 2022-2027, Industry Trends, Share, Growth, Impact of COVID-19, Opportunity Company Analysis report, the South African e-commerce market will reach US$7.9 billion by 2027 from US$4.5 billion in 2021 (Research and Markets, 2021).

However, they have also shone a spotlight on the many limitations and gaps within the existing information technology framework in the country – key among them being slow-paced infrastructure development, over-regulation, human capital and skills shortages, and digital exclusion. Unlike most metropolitan middle-class homes in the country, more than 10 million households falling within the low disposable income bracket of under R12 000 per month still require access to high-quality Internet fibre, in order to bridge the digital divide (Stumpf and Hassan, 2022).

In a quest to free South Africa from these growth barriers, while taking into consideration the needs of all its citizens, the Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is gathering evidence to support a new blueprint for boosting the economy. This research is being undertaken in three phases. The first, where the institute looked to methods adopted by Germany, Japan, South Korea and Rwanda for inspiration on how to rapidly turn around an ailing economy, is complete.

Phase two is currently in action and involves engaging the various sectors in discussions, comparing how South Africa is holding up in terms of the generally accepted global economic rules. It also asks questions about how to surpass the expected 2-3% GDP growth for middle-income developing countries, to reach at least the 4-5% mark. This is vital to chipping away at the huge unemployment and backlogs, which requires fresh ideas and radical concepts. And, of course, rapid implementation.

In the ultimate phase, this comprehensive map will be consolidated into a concise, accessible document, which will then be presented to government representatives and other important policy institutions and public bodies, such as Parliament, later this year.

Key barriers to growth

Slow-paced infrastructure development

South Africa is lagging far behind other countries globally in terms of infrastructure deployment, especially with regards to fibre, cell phone towers and, to a lesser degree, wireless networks and mobile devices. In the Huawei Global Connectivity Index 2020 report, South Africa ranked 56th, down from 46th in 2018. The GCI ranks 79 countries annually according to their scores on ICT investment, ICT maturity, and digital economic performance (Tech Financials, 2021).

Despite a devastating year, South Africa improved in its development of AI and IOT technology enablers in 2020. Broadband and Cloud, however, showed no movement in the overall scoring. Technology enablers being the digital infrastructure and modus operandi which underpin the kind of digital transformation that allows countries to take giant leaps in performance, production efficiency, competitiveness and innovation (Tech Financials, 2021).

It has been found globally that broadband plays a substantial role in increasing job creation, stimulating economic growth, broadening educational opportunities, enhancing public service delivery, and rural development, among others (Gillwald, Mothobi and Rademan, 2018).

Digital technologies have the ability to multiply access to markets and opportunities and reduce poverty and inequality. South Africa investing in digital development is a no-brainer. According to The World Bank, the numbers speak for themselves: the digital economy represents 15.5% of global GDP, growing two and a half times faster than global GDP over the past 15 years. Furthermore, a 10% increase in mobile broadband penetration in Africa would result in an increase of 2.5% of GDP per capita. But most developing countries, including South Africa, lack the infrastructure and tools to reach those numbers (The World Bank, 2020).

Although in certain areas of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) there has been a wave of investments in data centre infrastructure, there is still a dearth of centres generally in the region. The Africa Digital Infrastructure Market Analysis 2021 report found that the Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) zone has a meagre 79 co-location data centres in 14 countries, as opposed to the global figure of 4 854 co-location data centres in 129 countries. In another comparison, globally there are 4.94 million towers, whereas in the SSA there are only 169 000, with 34 000 of those in South Africa (WCO East and Southern Africa, 2021). We are limping behind.

South Africa will also have to really look at how it extends the reach of infrastructure beyond just the metropolitan areas. The country is faced with large levels of urbanisation, without the infrastructure capacity to support that. Government needs to invest in infrastructure not only for the urban population, but also for the peri-urban and rural communities. It needs to look at demand-driven supply chain models, technology models, and the vehicles – whether it is subsidisation or investment – that extend infrastructure and inclusivity beyond those areas. This will attract a bigger marketplace, which means higher volume and, in turn, will drive more revenue, increasing economic growth.

Prohibitive regulation and policy

Government needs to facilitate digital infrastructure development and stimulate investment through regulation that is not too prohibitive, that permits a short time to market. As it stands, there is a massive mismatch between what the country needs to do in order to deliver increased broadband connectivity for all, and what the government requirements are.

Participants at the dialogue offered a few examples of excessive regulation. Cell phone towers still require laborious town planning exercises. The regulatory approval process for land is extremely restrictive. Even though government, through its many organisations, owns most of the land in the country, it can take three to five years just to secure access to land for a cell phone tower. Further regulations and approval requirements mean it could take up to six or seven years to finalise an application. And even with permission to dig a trench, to lay fibre, then there is the ‘construction mafia’ to contend with – people are getting shot and killed – and extortion by private landowners. Another obstacle is high access fees – government asks for R10 000 per month at 8% escalation. This is completely unsustainable for most businesses.

And sight should not be lost of access to the road networks. This is the easiest and quickest way to deploy fibre infrastructure without having to go to great lengths. It is well known that municipalities, and particularly SANRAL, have been very difficult to deal with on this matter. The Digital Council Africa has been trying to solve this problem for many years. Yet, since the Electronic Communications Act came into being in 2005, the Rapid Deployment Guidelines have not been published (RSA, 2005). In addition, when new buildings are constructed, there are no regulations in place to ensure that conduits are installed in the initial construction, and fixed-line penetration such as fibre is still lagging.

All of these issues ultimately contribute to the cost of communication and therefore the cost to the economy. The ICT sector, particularly big business, is hit hard by the government on a continuous basis. There are simply too many hands trying to grab a slice of the pie.

There is also a plethora of old policies, developed more than a decade ago, which either need review or, the ones that are acceptable, are not being executed. For example, with South Africa Connect, it was noted that it should be easy to connect every school, library, police station, community centre, etcetera, but this has yet to come to fruition. The feeling at the dialogue was one of “South Africa should stop writing policies and strategies for 2050, if it cannot even get the strategy for 2025 in place and executed”.

Another growth blocker is the spectrum debacle. Spectrum is the lifeblood of wireless networks, the invisible radio frequencies allocated to the mobile industry and other sectors for communication over the airwaves. It is key to economic growth and job creation, and yet, South African mobile operators are horridly spectrum constrained.

Releasing more spectra would result in a better-quality service for consumers, with fewer dropped calls and faster download speeds. As a crucial part of President Ramaphosa’s structural reform programme, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) will be auctioning spectrum for 4G and 5G broadband services. However, it is taking an unnecessarily protracted amount of time to carry through with this process – which has been on the cards for many years now – due to legal action against ICASA initiated by high-level mobile operators. And while government and business in South Africa continue to delay industry momentum, more developed nations such as the United States and China are already charging off in the direction of high-speed data services such as 6G (Mhlaka, 2021).

Floundering government capacity

One of the biggest impediments within the ICT sector in South Africa is the State’s incapacity and disinclination to move with speed and urgency in a sector with rapidly changing technologies. Particularly municipalities and SANRAL, are difficult to access, but also, for example ICASA can take 12-18 months simply to transfer ownership of licences.

There are major technology and service backlogs in South Africa compared to other countries and continents, and in a competitive sector such as this, these delays are unplayable, and they retard the economy. For example, while the bigger metropolitan municipalities like Tshwane, Johannesburg and Cape Town are leading single trenching, in other municipalities they often still lack the capacity to do so effectively and the appreciation of the benefits this would bring.

There is also often a lack of political and managerial will within government to focus on and implement the processes which already exist. One example that the participants raised was the Rapid Deployment Guidelines which still have not been finalised. In addition, it is important to have the right people in government in the right positions and with the right skills, and they must be held accountable for delivery. Alarming levels of corruption, politically based hiring, insufficient education around best practice, and skills deficiencies in government results in infrastructure not being maintained, and slow, or stalled, service delivery, creating a domino effect of massive revenue and business losses.

Trust between business and government is on shaky ground. There is a big lack of taking ownership. Looking to the future and the new opportunities that 5G will bring in terms of employment and digital economies, there needs to be a conversation about the fundamentals. And about timeline specific service level agreements, especially from government institutions, to ensure that the operators can effectively deploy the networks in the most profitable and most efficient ways.

There is a push towards smart cities, which have wide-ranging benefits for a broad spectrum of industries as well as for the day-to-day lives of citizens. However, the dire undersupply of basic municipal services, insufficient infrastructure and maintenance, and years of corruption within government – local, provincial and national – stands in the way of any progress in this regard (ITA, 2021).

Global benchmarking

Government is not constructively benchmarking the ICT industry against global standards, and as a result, South Africa is left with a myopic view of the world, with thinking that it is unique in many respects, and with no real high-water mark to measure against. But South Africa is not unique in the challenges it faces. Other middle-income economies are facing the same difficulties in working out how to incorporate digital disruption into their existing policy instruments.

That said, South Africa does face a few obstacles specific to the country which hinder the technology industry’s move towards automation, such as unreliable sources of electricity and the stubborn idea that work needs to be done in a tradition manner.

A caveat to the idea of doing more benchmarking studies is that they are often done and then simply not implemented. These studies should not be used to delay the implementation of existing policies and laws.

South Africa is part of a global community, where the Internet ensures access to mega amounts of data and information. Government would do well to acknowledge that the country is indeed plugged into the rest of the world and needs to conform to universal, acceptable standards in order to keep up with global progress.

Market-related skills shortages

Skills shortages are a key constraint in South Africa. The imminent job losses as a result of the radically changing nature of work – due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution – is a scary prospect considering the already untenable unemployment figures and the fact that technology touches on every aspect of the economy. If South Africa wants to compete in the global digital economy, it will need to make education a primary concern and beef up the digital skills of its workforce. In other words, it will need to invest in people (The World Bank, 2021).

Businesses need skills at all levels: programming, web and application development, digital design, data management, visualisation and analytics. The 2021 ICT Skills Survey showed that significant digital skills gaps remain and that the future is about building solid foundations, including encouraging people – of both genders – to learn STEM subjects; ensuring that they have a strong literacy, numeracy, and information and communication technology base and that they gain practical experience (University of the Witwatersrand, 2021). Continuing professional development, or reskilling, and creating sufficient entrepreneurs, to pre-empt the job losses coming will also remain critical.

Education trajectories need to be more agile and must move away from a traditional focus and towards teaching technical ability – not only about how to use the devices, but also about what to do with the content that lives on those devices. This can include short courses that teach more market-related skills including micro credentials. Skills that are aligned with the dynamic nature of the ICT industry and which can quickly be monetised and allow people to enter and exit the system at multiple points. In addition, more use should be made of informal learning such as using YouTube and other free platforms.

In order to respond to skills requirements, there is a need to package teams of individuals to fulfil the variety of expertise necessary to get the job done, which may not be present in a single individual. It is also important to look at the high-end data science, AI, machine learning, and robotics skills needed for innovation and for creating digital marketplaces and hubs.

Digital exclusion

The digital revolution is playing out unevenly across South Africa, which has consequences for the competitiveness, inclusiveness and sustainability of the economy. Without connectivity, people are excluded from participating in the economic and social networks that are necessary for human development in contemporary society, which is a human right. This narrative is highlighted in the United Nations’ Social Development Goals to ‘enhance the use of enabling technologies, in particular ICT, to promote women’s empowerment’ and ‘significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to Internet in LDCs by 2020’ (Gillwald, Mothobi and Rademan, 2018).

India, the United Kingdom and the United States all have their own context specific approaches to digital inclusion. South Africa’s approach is still not clear. But if the country wants to see a broader economic impact, it will have to drive an inclusive agenda. It urgently needs to clarify how it will deliver affordable connectivity and devices, and how platforms for local content can be developed to stimulate demand. Furthermore, commercial and technological supply models need to be developed to extend infrastructure to peri-urban and rural areas.

Most low-income households are forced to use expensive pay-as-you-go data bundles to access the Internet, whereas most middle-class homes and suburbs now have access to high-quality Internet fibre. This infrastructure feat, however impressive, just further exposes the endemic fault lines of inequality that keep South Africa from real economic and social transformation. To remedy this effectively and thoroughly, capital will need to be invested cleverly in rolling out high-quality, unlimited Internet to lower income households (Stumpf and Hassan, 2022).

For example, relying on established local operators rather than trying to build fresh infrastructure, would make the exercise much more affordable. Using funding models such as open-access infrastructure and infrastructure sharing increases competition at the retail level, which can drive affordability of end-user tariffs and take-up by customers in the low-income market. There is also a growing trend where infrastructure is shared between competitors to drive down the cost of Internet connectivity by cutting out the building costs of towers and data centres.

There is evidence of an increasing divide between those who have the means and skills to utilise the Internet connection they have optimally and those who do not. And a concern that digital technologies will increase the existing divide between large and small businesses, inflating the existing concentration in the economy. In particular, black investors and entrepreneurs will need access to funding solutions for equitable ownership within the ICT industry. A digital industrial policy must therefore ensure that benefits are distributed across different types of businesses, their employees, and broader society (Andreoni & Avenyo, 2021).

Security breaches

Security in this industry has not grown at a fast enough pace to keep up with the constant innovations. In South Africa, the issue is compounded by the rampant theft – driven by demand on the black market – of back-up batteries used to power cellphone towers during electricity disruptions. Without these batteries, load shedding leads to network outages, which disrupts the economy and the daily lives of South Africa’s citizens.

MTN – one of South Africa's biggest telecommunications providers – has reported that they lose an astounding 200 batteries every month. Vodacom recorded ‘several hundred cases of battery theft and base station vandalism per month’. Telkom has also had to deal with theft during power outages, reporting about 650 battery and base station incidents per month. And while MTN said that incidents of battery theft dropped to 52 in May, it reported a 50% increase in copper cable theft. Other telecommunications providers report having the same issues. Gauteng, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal are hardest hit by the drop in network coverage (Business Insider, 2021).

The other concern is cybersecurity. There has been a steady increase in high-profile cyberattacks and hacks in South Africa as a result of a rise in internet traffic. In fact, cyber incidents are one of the top three worries of businesses in South Africa, according to the Allianz Risk Barometer 2022, with business interruption and critical infrastructure blackouts being the other two worries. However, the country is not unique in this. Threats of ransomware attacks, data breaches or major IT outages concern companies globally (BusinessTech, 2022).

Breaking the barriers to economic growth

Regulatory certainty

Policies need to be clarified and then implemented in order to create an enabling environment. And government, especially municipalities, needs to streamline the way it engages with industry. It was suggested that tech provisioning and rapid deployment should be written into legislation as soon as possible.

Regulation needs to improve. ICASA must be better resourced and funded and needs to come up with more evidence-based regulation, to avoid excessive litigation. Over-regulation should be avoided, and more self-regulation – prevalent in Europe and other parts of the world – could be considered with audits of codes of conduct. There should also be identification of the specific market failure and a response with structured regulation. Furthermore, it should not crowd out private sector investment, but rather, it should create incentives to invest.

Fix backlogs

Cloud computing can act as a stopgap for digital infrastructure backlogs, given that there are supply constraints and that data centres are quite expensive to establish and maintain. Another theme which came up regularly throughout the discussions was that spectrum should be released without delay.

From a service delivery perspective, key to improving this is enhancing government capacity to implement and enforce industrial policy through qualifications vetting and upskilling and reskilling. And ensuring more effective cooperation with the private sector.

Public-private collaboration

There is a mutual lack of trust between business and government, but the pandemic was an example of where collaboration could be successful. Government should gather all the relevant stakeholders together, ask advice, and most importantly, action their policies and plans.

Government institutions should also adopt timeline specific service level agreements, to ensure that the operators can effectively deploy the networks in the most profitable and most efficient ways. They should use mechanisms such as rapid deployment and pre-provisioning.

Speeding up the process of building smart cities will improve operational efficiency, share information with the public, and provide a better quality of government service to citizens. Government asserts that the two smart city concepts identified, for KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, will accelerate economic transformation with particular benefit to rural communities.

Release spectrum

In releasing spectrum, South Africa needs to avoid a free-for-all approach, while at the same time allowing for small providers in rural areas to innovate and expand the network without too many regulatory constraints. Furthermore, spectrum auction licence conditions must ensure that broadband is accessible to all. And there needs to be a review done mid-way.

SA Connect’s e-rate – which divides the cost of data between schools or colleges, and service providers at a ratio of approximately 50/50 – should be scrapped and it should just be made a licence condition. When small SMMEs are given access to spectrum, they might not be able to honour these conditions at scale, so it is important to incentivise the bigger providers to do so.

There needs to be a plan, implement and monitor process that is time bound. Huge amounts of spectrum are going to be auctioned, to the existing operators and also to the whole access network. There needs to be a framework attached to that process to ensure that everybody in the sector has access to the broadband that they require. The suggestion is to look at a two- to five-year programme to making that undertaking tangible.

Inclusivity is key

Affordability is crucial to offering an inclusive technological environment. Dividing the cost of broadband between schools and operators has not worked. There should rather be a standing obligation to roll out the network to schools. The provincial departments then need to provide the necessary laptops or other devices required by schools to make broadband a reality, instead of a spoken aspiration.

Reducing the cost not only of connectivity, but also of devices, specifically handsets, is something that can be looked at in terms of government tax incentives, subsidies, etc. Again, this will require strong collaboration between government, the vendors, the operators, all the stakeholders.

Infrastructure development

In some countries, infrastructure for fibre is built into the framework of buildings when they are first erected. In other words, just as there would be electrical cables and water pipes included in a new building, so too there would be a conduit for the running of fibre. Furthermore, some countries even include zoning for Edge infrastructure in the building quote. Building standards relating to digital infrastructure need to be urgently implemented, to reduce the artificial impediment that arises from wanting to roll out infrastructure.

The prolonged problem of load shedding has changed South Africa's – and telecommunication providers’ – approach to the energy mix, with both looking to renewables. MTN has 30 off-grid renewable energy sites to keep the power on in remote areas, but metropolitan options remain limited.

As the world becomes more digital, it is more important than ever to develop secure, reliable digital systems. Government needs to strengthen capacity in areas like cybersecurity and data protection.

Responsible investment

The country needs responsible growth; it cannot just be a free for all, especially in terms of spectrum assignments. Government has to create an enabling environment where the big capital investors can participate with certainty, if it hopes to achieve sustainable growth. Firstly, government needs to get the basics right and then there also needs to be a strict reactionary policy approach of responsible investment.

Another investment opportunity involves South Africa driving the digital platform economy to capitalise on its multiplier effects. It also needs to create platforms for non-specialists, rather than just specialist IT people and companies. The effect will be a higher employment rate, one of the country’s biggest sustainability concerns, and giving the unemployed better access to market.


The demand for data is exploding. The pandemic has ignited a frenzy of digitisation and the industry is no longer the quiet engine of the economy it once was, ticking over in the background. The World Bank has shown that the digital economy could stimulate South African GDP significantly and drive employment levels in the right direction.

It seems clear from the webinar discussion that the ICT sector have got their game plan in place. And they are not asking for miracles, but rather for a few basic steps to be taken, and taken properly. Government needs to roll out a more enabling infrastructure such as high-speed broadband that reaches beyond the metros to the rural areas. It needs better resourced education and training institutions and more digital upskilling and reskilling. It also needs a coherent digital industry regulation and policy framework that enables healthy competition and rapid progress.

International automation is a US$221 billion business, whereas in South Africa, automation has only reached the US$130 million mark. Despite the massive difference in revenue generation, South Africa is expected to see a 50% growth rate per annum in ICT automation. Globally, the growth rate is approximately 7% (Telesa, 2021).

There are no low-hanging fruits that can be seized to quickly catapult South Africa into a new growth trajectory. But even though South Africa’s structural constraints have limited the development and diffusion of skills and capabilities beyond some scattered islands of innovation, the country does have the potential to fast track into the new digital era. With the expected massive growth in the ICT industry, it is safe to say that automation is leading the way on the global stage and is destined to become king in South Africa’s digital and economic revolution.


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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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