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18 December 2017 03:24 (South Africa)
Opinionista Helen Zille

From the Inside: There are many good stories to tell

  • Helen Zille
    helen-zille-02.jpg
    Helen Zille

    Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

As Western Cape Premier, I am often amazed how little we tell the world about what the provincial government is doing. This feeling reaches a peak early in February, when reports start arriving in my office from different departments as we prepare for the State of the Province address – the annual opportunity to showcase our government’s successes.

During the rest of the year our systems are geared to identify and address problems but early February is the one time I collect and collate the good news. It is impossible to do justice to all of it.

What fascinated me this year was the enormous impact technology is having on governance. This is fundamentally different from 2009, when we were first elected into provincial office.

Take agriculture. If anyone still thinks of farmers as unsophisticated rural yokels disconnected from the modern world, they should think again. Technology has revolutionised the industry, attracting tech-savvy entrepreneurs, who are developing platforms and apps that are changing the food production value chain beyond recognition.

When I first read about Fruitlook, I assumed it was a raunchy website. I now know that it is an online platform using satellite technology to inspect crops, right down to the level of individual fields, and provide farmers with crucial information to make strategic management decisions.

One such decision is how to maximise the impact of limited water supplies in the current drought.

Fruitlook (developed through a partnership between the Western Cape Government and Hortgro, the Deciduous fruit-growers research and knowledge agency) has mapped 5.7-million hectares of farmland, including the entire fruit producing area of 220,000 hectares from Vredendal in the west of the province to Montagu/Bonnievale in the east and De Doorns in the north. Among many other things, farmers can get accurate information on how much water each field needs, at any given time.

Using satellite and weather data, the platform tells farmers how much water their crop used in the previous week, whether and where there are water deficiencies, and the actual biomass of growth produced. Fruitlook offers farmers nine types of information on their crops, from a vegetation index showing how vigorously the crop is growing, to a leaf area index showing the size of leaves versus the amount of visible soil. This is crucial agricultural management information that can inform a range of decisions.

The Fruitlook service is funded by us and is free to farmers, who are streaming into the training sessions at our Agriculture Department’s Elsenburg head office. Farmers are currently monitoring an estimated 90,000 hectares in this way, with more to follow.

There were many details of similar innovations in my 90-minute speech (which stretched to an uncomfortable two hours as a result of ANC disruptions). And there was a lot that I didn’t even get to.

Like Catch & Match. No, it is not a dating site. It is a GPS-enabled app that gives community health workers the ability to capture the health requirements of every person in every household in the area they service, and transmit it instantly to a database, where the information is sorted and fed to relevant points in the health service pipeline. If a woman is pregnant, for example, she is referred to an ante-natal clinic that can ensure that she is screened (and follow up if she does not arrive). Malnourished children or people with disabilities – or any other health need – can be matched with services in a similar way.

The app was commissioned by the Provincial Department of Health and is being piloted by community workers under the management of Philani, a health-services NGO.

Then there is the revolution that connectivity is bringing to education. By mid-year, 99% of pupils in the Western Cape will have free access to the internet at schools, libraries and rural access centres. By mid-2018, there will be free wi-fi access points in every ward, where residents can also buy five gigabytes of data for R45 (once they have used their free allocation).

Connectivity in schools is already having a significant impact, as statistics reflecting growing web traffic show. Page hits have increased from 375-million in June 2015 to over 3.8-billion in January this year. An additional 745-million page hits were recorded in our libraries and Cape Access centres.

Statistics like these make me optimistic that we will indeed be able to tackle some of our most intractable problems. But there are also those that somehow remain stubbornly solution-resistant.

Like the HIV/AIDS infection rates among young girls.

A statistic that also hit me between the eyes (but for negative rather than positive reasons) is that the probability of a 15-year-old South African girl becoming HIV positive is 35%. More than one in three. Although the statistic in the Western Cape is substantially lower (20% or one in five), this number is still, frankly, incomprehensible after three decades of intensive HIV education and treatment campaigns.

The fact that AIDS is now a chronic rather than a fatal disease seems to have made many people complacent, enabling society to turn a blind eye to the “Blesser” culture, an indefensible and widespread practice where older men have sex with young girls in return for material favours.

Currently there are over 250,000 new HIV infections per year in South Africa. Access to free state-sponsored life-long treatment enables infected people to enjoy a normal life. But it is not hard to see what will happen if over 250,000 people join the treatment queues every year. The AIDS budget will overwhelm the capacity of the health system to meet other needs and reduce the resources we need for innovation.

Every time I raise this topic there is an outcry from virtue-signallers, telling me we cannot beat AIDS until we eradicate poverty. I understand that there is a link between poverty and AIDS, but we must invert the argument. One of the reasons poverty is so intractable is that we cannot be honest enough with ourselves to talk about, and take responsibility for, preventing preventable conditions, of which AIDS is only one.

Indeed, we need to look seriously at the viability of all our programmes that offer a seemingly bottomless pit of free benefits in a context where the trade-offs for society are becoming unaffordable. This does not only refer to health. It is also relevant to housing, where national government policies are switching to subsidies for affordable housing, rather than giving away houses for free.

But all these services, whether they are free or merely subsidised, need a growing tax base, which requires more people to be in jobs, which calls for an accelerating economic growth rate. This is why creating conditions for attracting investment is our government’s top priority. This is not at the expense of the poor. Indeed, confidence and investment are essential to secure economic liberation for all. DM

  • Helen Zille
    helen-zille-02.jpg
    Helen Zille

    Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

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