Manuel: SA needs younger leaders to progress

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South Africa will lag behind technologically if too many of its leaders are "on the wrong side of the age distribution curve," former finance minister Trevor Manuel has said.

Speaking at a colloquium titled Digital Finance in Africa's Future: Innovations and Implications at the University of Johannesburg on Monday, Manuel said South Africa's government could learn from Senegal and Rwanda's use of digital systems.

"An e-government will pull all kinds of services into the public spaces differently," he said. "It will also change the relationship.

"My own sense is that one of the problems we have on the continent is that too many leaders are on the wrong side of the age distribution curve."

Last week, the Nugent inquiry heard damning testimony alleging that the South African Revenue Service's e-filing systems were on the verge of collapse. The tax agency has since denied this.

"When leaders are on the wrong side of the curve, technology is to be feared or hidden from the people," Manuel said. "The demand for empowerment of the people or services, structured differently, is likely to open the gap.

"There are enormous possibilities going forward," he added.

Manuel also believes there is room to revamp financial services across the continent, and that fintech will play a role.

"I know there is a distinction between payment systems and traditional financial institutions," he said. But, he added, he didn't necessarily agree with this distinction as it might create "two different classes of people".

"You need to think about a different future – of bringing the two together," he said. "That is very important."

Banks may 'go the same way as Kodak'

Fellow speaker Stephen Nduati, former Kenyan Reserve Bank regulator, agreed, saying traditional banking – including Central Banks – may face the same fate as Kodak if they fail to find new service models.

Kodak infamously failed to embrace digital photography as a disruptive force, with disastrous results, despite inventing it.

"Has photography stopped or increased because of digital?" he asked. "Photography has increased despite what happened to Kodak. The same statement goes for banks. They are there to provide financial services, not to protect their buildings."

He added that ways of profiting were likely to change. "Who should be charging whom?" he asked. "You are the one sitting on my money.

"We have to obey the market, and the market is disruptive."

If it sounded unlikely, he added, "ask the people who held onto shares in Kodak – they know what happened to them".

"In another five years we will come back to this hall and ask what has happened to traditional banking," he said.

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