Finance Minister Tito Mboweni presented his plans to reduce expenditure by between R83 billion and R307 billion over the next three years when he tabled his medium term budget policy statement on Wednesday.
Under Covid-19 the implications of these expenditure cuts across the public and private sector present an opportunity to us all to think, plan and act differently.
Among the major adjustments to go along with these cuts is increased investment in our state information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and capability.
So far, we have treated ICT and connectivity as an addendum. That must change, as a matter of urgency, to create a state that is suited for the digital age.
That will be the only way for Mboweni to balance the nation’s books without compromising service delivery.
South Africa remains a developing country. To improve the quality of life of nearly 60 million South Africans, the fight against poverty, ignorance and disease must be given priority.
Delivering education, healthcare and the various economic recovery projects to create jobs with reduced expenditure cannot happen without exponential growth in the digital capability of the state.
South Africa lags the continent in access to affordable internet and data – the very fuel of competitiveness today.
A recent global survey by a UK company, Cable, ranked South Africa 148th out of 228 countries on the price of mobile bandwidth.
For a country in Africa, where mobile data is driving most of the modernisation of economies, South Africa trails Nigeria at 58, Kenya at 41, Tanzania at 23 and Somalia at 7.
Since the start of the lockdown on March 27, the department of basic education has battled to maintain learning and teaching for more than 14.2 million school children.
Since the right to basic education and the Bill of Rights enjoin government to make education available, the department had to step up the reach of its ICT infrastructure under duress to keep schools going without endangering the lives of pupils, teachers and other workers. The department of higher education faced the same challenge.
Now in the last quarter of the year, examinations are underway. However, in preparing for the new academic year the department of basic education will have to prioritise access to affordable internet connectivity and data, as the world anticipates the second wave of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Schools and tertiary institutions cannot be caught unprepared again.
Healthcare will also have to adapt to the new conditions, if the treatment of the Covid-19 patients is to be sustained.
Already Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize told the nation in August that 78% of the 21 333 Covid-19 cases among healthcare workers were in the public sector. Technology can be deployed to screen patients without human contact.
Unaffordable data and weak connectivity conspire to aggravate South Africa’s income inequality. High mobile data costs, even with our 55% internet penetration compared to 39.3% on the continent, will continue to marginalise the majority of South African children and users of public healthcare unless government accelerates the reduction of data prices.
So, while it is commendable that government will try everything, including a wage freeze, to contain public expenditure, this welcome gesture could go even further if the cost of connectivity was prioritised.
The public wage bill reduction is aimed at labour-intensive sectors, which include learning and culture (with a planned drop of R114 billion over the next four years) as well as police and security (R78.5 billion).
Obviously, all these proposals will be met with resistance by labour unions. In the meantime, no labour union would oppose improved access to internet connectivity and affordable data – because that would enable the educators to teach from home if or when the second wave necessitates a future lockdown.
The digitisation of social services such as education will position South Africa competitively among world’s dynamic economies and prepare our pupils for life beyond the fourth industrial revolution.
Masilela is CEO of the ZA Central Registry
The ZA Central Registry (ZACR) is a non-profit corporation currently managing various .ZA second level domains, such as co.za, net.za, org.za and web.za as well as .africa, with more than 1 000 000 domain name registrations. These names represent 95% of the total number of registrations in .ZA, and a large percentage of ccTLD registrations for the entire African continent. In 2014 ZACR added three new generic top-level domains to its administration, namely, .Joburg, .CapeTown and .Durban