According to Stats SA, ICT in South Africa is currently larger than agriculture in terms of economic production. This is despite the fact that more people work in the agricultural sector. While ICT is skills-intensive, its benefits are far reaching as it supports and develops all other industries.
Nearly half of all ICT imports – 47,5%– consists of radio, television and communication equipment. This highlights South Africa’s reliance on other countries to provide it with ICT equipment, such as smartphones, tablets, computers and servers. As such, South Africa’s ICT imports supersedes its exports, resulting in a trade deficit.
To mitigate this deficit, it is evident that greater investment into South Africa’s ICT sector is needed. However, for this investment to be fruitful and actually address key challenges within the country – such as unemployment – a greater emphasis on skills development needs to be undertaken, because unlike other sector, ICT is skills-intensive.
While free online courses do exist for a number of basic ICT skills, the data-barrier remains a key challenge, in ensuring the proliferation of these skills to the broader population, and enabling the large pool of unemployed youth to access ICT opportunities.
The price of mobile data in South Africa remains a key stumbling block preventing South Africans from using the Internet, according to a report by Research ICT Africa.
The report was commissioned to determine the barriers keeping people offline, the effect of zero-rating traffic and the barriers to entry. The research found that the price of data and rate at which it depletes left many respondents frustrated and unable to utilize the internet extensively.
It is therefore critical for government to fast-track the provision of zero-rating education based websites, where ICT skills development are provided for free. Zero-rating is the practice of providing Internet access without financial cost under certain conditions.
While there exists private institutions which offer both basic and intensive courses on ICT, access to finance to pursue these market-relevant skills, poses an additional barrier for the largely unemployed youth who could substantially benefit from it.
Moreover, drastic and urgent attention needs to be given to the provision of these skills by the Department of Basic Education. Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga stated during the debate on the State of the Nation this year, that the education system needs to be overhauled. An overhaul which prepares young people with market-relevant skills. This would require the changing of the curriculum, re-training teachers and working with Universities to produce new teachers embedded in the new model.
While this is a long term plan, government needs to undertake – in the interim – including basic ICT related subjects into the curriculum, such as coding. This could fast track the model for change within the education system, and enable – at least – the basic transfer of skills relevant for the growing ICT sector.
ICT POLICY WHITE PAPER
On a broader policy level, the South African government has a National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper. This White Paper outlines the overarching policy framework for the transformation of South Africa into an inclusive and innovative digital and knowledge society. According to Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Siyabonga Cwele, “The White Paper brings certainty in the market – a key ingredient as the South African government seeks to use ICT to facilitate faster shared economic growth, improve service delivery and radically transform our society.”
It has been stated by various government officials, that the aim of the white paper is to improve the lives of South Africans through increasing access to ICT. The challenge however, is that much of the conversation about ICT within the political sphere centers around the utilization of the end product i.e how the end product can improve peoples lives. While this emphasis is important, it doesn’t address one of South Africa’s core challenges – unemployment.
To substantively benefit from ICT and #Industry40 in the long term, emphasis need to be given to the development of these technologies locally, or at the very minimum forming partnerships with large multilateral technology companies to open factories in South Africa where this technology can be produced.
This would enable the South African citizenry to benefit from ICT as both the recipients of the technology and the producers of it.
As a Research Institute, would therefore advice a more nuanced look at ICT and #Inductry40 in official government policy. While one of the key focus areas of the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper is “ mechanisms to promote growth in the ICT and postal industries”, this needs to evolve to include both the facilitation and support of the ICT industry, so as to assist in the development of a manufacturing sector for ICT, which could produce ICT products for both the local and international markets.
In addition, with the impending African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a broader market for distribution of these products exist, which could result in greater employment opportunities.
The first steps towards re-igniting South Africa’s manufacturing sector, and kick starting ICT product development, came after South Africa’s recent Investment Summit, where Rwandan businessman and billionaire Ashish Thakkar, from the Mara Group announced ambitious plans to develop manufacturing plants in Rwanda and South Africa. During the inaugural investment conference, Thakkar announced that his company would be investing R1.5 billion in a South African venture over the next five years.
While one initiative won’t radically change South Africa’s unemployment crisis, its does have the potential to position South Africa as a haven for multinational organisations who seek to open ICT manufacturing plants.
Key in ensuring this happens, is the role of government in creating the relevant environment for skills development in the ICT sector to flourish, working on evolving existing policies to accommodate both the supply and demand of ICT products, and positioning South Africa as a haven for ICT manufacturing.
Fazlin Fransman is a Senior Researcher for Moja Research Institute