Guest Column

Ramaphosa's ICT commission needs to get cracking

2018-05-04 07:51
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (PHOTO: Gallo images/ Getty images)

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (PHOTO: Gallo images/ Getty images)

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Glenn Gillis

It's more than two months since President Cyril Ramaphosa planted his bags in his new office and charmed South Africans with his morning runs and his strolls – like a mere mortal – through a shopping mall.

In that time the excitement surrounding his appointment seems to have hit a dull buzz and Ramaphosa should now be hard at work following through on all the plans announced in his State of the Nation Address. 

One of those concerned a renewed focus on the country's ICT industry and preparations for the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. He said that government will "soon establish a Digital Industrial Revolution Commission, which will include the private sector and civil society". 

The announcement was met with positive sentiment from experts and industry players but since February we haven't seen or heard much about this commission from government or the president himself. 

In all fairness, these things do tend to take a bit of time to set up. Unfortunately, time is not on our side and it feels as if we're already far from the starting line. Take this one statistic as an example: Only 28% of public schools around the country use computers and other digital devices to enhance teaching and learning (up from 12.3% in 1999), said the Department of Basic Education last year.

It's unclear just what falls within the commission's purview but Ramaphosa obviously wants to talk to ICT experts across multiple fields. 

To say that there could be a lot of ground for the commission to cover is something of an understatement. But we need to start by trying to address the challenges facing the industry right now.

Scrap legislation

Firstly, the body needs to identify legislation, and government bodies that are more of a hindrance than a help to those looking to enter the sector. To name but one, the South African Revenue Service (Sars) is particularly anti-small business in their every action. They make it far too complicated and onerous to set up a business and there's no real incentive to comply.

Turning to legislation, government will have to look at doing away with laws that are just red tape propped up by government departments to seemingly justify their existence. Instead of assisting new businesses to get on their feet, these departments are simply not flexible or quick enough to assist people. 

All they do is put in place more policies and application forms, and it has the effect of driving a bigger wedge between people who want to move forward and employ people but are effectively crippled by a bureaucratic system. This will make many officials quiver in their boots, but it's a necessary step to get the industry and economy revved up.

Government officials aren't going to like the next thing I say either, but here goes: Our government seems to prioritise so-called supply-side development. The thinking is that they'll build incubators and hopefully make industries more accessible for more people. In other words, what we do is we tend to think that "if we build it they will come". It doesn't work that way in business, particularly in the South African context.

We have demand problems and not supply problems, resulting in the cost of servicing businesses in South Africa being extremely high. This is highly problematic for businesses offering digital services as a significant area of their work requires innovation, which essentially means selling something on a future that hasn't yet been clearly designed. And if that new business is being run by a young person who doesn't yet have credibility and is hopefully something other than white, there are four or five factors stacked against that person truly breaking into the market.

Changing focus

So, the commission needs to map out ways for government to prioritise how to make it simpler and easier to acquire access to scalable market opportunities, demand-side initiatives, and three to five-year commitments that allow companies to scale and to grow.

This would mean that schemes at the Department of Trade and Industry, for instance, that have traditionally been designed to incentivise supply-side elements need to be more focussed on assessing demand and communicating with industry about those needs. 

In a world with a fast-growing dependency on technology, we need the State, civil society and corporate leaders to focus their energies on getting our country, not just to the starting line in the industry, but into the race.

- Gillis is the CEO of Sea Monster, a Cape Town-based virtual and augmented reality solutions company.

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