First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
(With apologies to Olivia Newton-John)
Why is the government taking so long to become fully digitalised? What is so hard about this? I’m not only talking about e-government, which makes citizens’ lives easier and removes the indignity of queues, but full-blown digitalisation, which happens when we use digitised content and data to change the way we interact or work. This could promote coordination between government departments and loosen the red tape that ties business in knots.
Did you know that government has no national database of addresses? Or no idea of the number of GPs practising in SA or their demographics? With accurate data, you can plan and measure. With this, SA’s land reform programme would be transformed overnight. Imagine.
Of course, this requires skill and dedication, but we consistently de-emphasise science and technology in this country – from the amount allocated in the Budget to policy flip-flops and paralysis.
Last week we heard that the on-again, off-again process to auction off 5G spectrum is off again, delayed by court action. Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has urged the parties to settle via mediation, which is one of the more sensible suggestions I’ve heard from her. We needed the high-speed internet and cheaper data it promises, like yesterday. South Africa is even losing ground to sub-Saharan peers such as Kenya, Rwanda, Botswana and Nigeria.
I see that the Small Business Institute (SBI), which does excellent research and whose voice is not heard loudly enough, has weighed in on the topic with a report called Digitalisation: The Best Hope for South Africa and its Small Firms.
“SA needs to embrace the future and embrace it fast,” says the SBI’s CEO, John Dludlu. “From all that we read and the case study examples of SMEs which were able to continue to trade using digital tools or building digital-first businesses, an urgent commitment to digitalisation is SA’s best hope, as much for small towns and rural areas as urban centres.”
Government is dragging its digital feet
But when it comes to assessing the government’s role in taking the country forwards into the fourth economy, the study – which seems to have read all the available literature in South Africa – makes for depressing reading. Government is completely incapable of digitising itself, let alone providing the enabling policy framework necessary to advance the economy. According to the National Planning Commission’s Review of Economic Progress, of the 35,000 government agencies that need to be digitally connected, 970 have been connected since 2017, and it’s not clear whether these sites are operational.
And that is before one gets to the state of education. This week Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg and this country’s most vocal proponent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, noted that SA spends 20% of its GDP on education. Commendable, right? Not when you realise that the UK, China and Singapore spend 6%, 4% and 3%, respectively, and have vastly superior outcomes to ours. But then, as I said earlier, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Or what you don’t prioritise. The most recent Budget diverts allocations from the departments overseeing SA’s shift to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Of course, there are pockets of success – National Treasury’s vulekamali.gov.za is one example, but there is a long way to go. SA’s best hope is to enable the private sector, as so many countries have done with resolve. Despite the constraints – a 2020 report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development noted that SA entrepreneurs are the least equipped to sell online, with Chinese the most – lockdown led to an explosion of e-commerce in this country. That is, once government reversed its nonsensical ban.
Online education, health solutions and retail grew in leaps and bounds. And South Africans began to problem-solve, as they do. Unilever now partners with Parcelninja to deliver products to 1,500 spaza shops in Gauteng; Yethu arranges deliveries to township households and spaza shops using minibus taxis; and Abiri, a mapping service, uses drones to convert footage into digital maps of townships to enable easy access. In almost all cases the lockdowns saw companies accelerate plans or initiate ideas they had not previously conceived of.
“Continuous innovation is central to economic prosperity,” says Dludlu. “If we embrace it with urgency and purpose, and not just by publishing strategies or regulations to try to govern it inappropriately, our economy will revive, jobs will be created and businesses will become more productive.”
To successfully empower a nation ready to leap ahead will require an urgent understanding of how best to unleash entrepreneurial innovation, Dludlu says. It will require a government willing to lighten the heavy hand of over-regulation and relinquish the idea of “controlling” the Fourth Industrial Revolution or how businesses embrace its tools. And government itself must dip its toe into the future by modernising its approach to serving the public. Never a truer word was spoken.
The report concludes with nine recommendations for accelerating SA’s digitalisation. They seem simple. To read them, go to smallbusinessinstitute.co.za. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.