As the world navigates life in the time of COVID-19, the state of the South African socio-economic landscape has been at the forefront of industry conversations, as we start to imagine what life will look like after the pandemic. Now, more than ever, is the time for industries to roll up their sleeves and get to work towards addressing the many challenges that have besieged South Africa since the dawn of our young democracy. As a business in the Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) sector, it is important for us to identify the role that we can play in rebuilding South Africa after the pandemic.
COVID-19 has had a staggering impact on societies and economies all over the world. In South Africa, the pandemic has exposed societal issues such as inequality and under-employment. Businesses in the private and public sector have been hard hit by the new reality and have tried to find ways to remain afloat in the face of a pandemic that has necessitated a limitation on operations. Industry leaders have been participating in critical conversations to try and find a sustainable and effective way forward, not only for themselves but for the country as a whole.
Recently, the managing director of the Bluevine Group, Kamogelo Moeng, participated in a dialogue that was centred around rebuilding South Africa post COVID. He shared his insights from an ICT perspective. The dialogue focused on three key areas: review, repurposing and rebuilding. The structure of the discussion is an important reflection of how we should approach the process of reconstructing South Africa.
South Africa’s troubling digital divide
With everything having to go online, from remote working to classes happening via Zoom, the stark gap between the privileged minority and marginalised majority has been all the more highlighted. As expressed by Kamogelo, “the biggest problem that we are going to face as South Africans is the digital divide.” Not everyone has the luxury of still being able to earn an income from the comfort of their homes. A majority of citizens and foreign nationals work in the informal sector wherein their work requires them to be at a particular site. Moreover, not every learner can learn online due to South Africa’s high data costs, which are amongst the highest on the continent. Our data costs are higher than countries such as Kenya, which is our digital counterpart. “1GB in Kenya costs about 40% less than 1GB in South Africa. Our data costs are similar to those in Germany, which is problematic because Germany is a first-world country, whereas South Africa is a developing country,” notes Kamogelo. In addition to the data costs, the digital chasm in South Africa is widened by the fact that households in poor areas can’t afford devices such as laptops.
While easier access to the internet and technology is important, it doesn’t solve the problem; digital literacy is still a problem in South Africa. Many South Africans still need to learn how to use the internet to access educational sites and use it for skills development, or even to purchase essential items on e-commerce sites, which is especially important during this lockdown period in which social distancing has been enforced for our health and safety.
“Most people are using the internet for social media, which brings in another concern: the capacity and adaptation of technology. Do we have the skills? Do we have the teachers? Are the parents open to learning? Access to knowledge is still wanting and limited to those who are highly skilled and have had access to quality education,” says Kamogelo. We need to develop and nurture digital skills, and this can only really happen once quality education is made accessible to learners in disadvantaged communities.
Finding opportunities in the uncertainty
Considering how long we have been in lockdown and the uncertainty around when life will go back to normal, we are faced with a situation in which we need to decide whether we are going to adapt or not, and what that looks like for different industries. We need to adapt in a way that allows businesses to thrive without risking the lives of people since the pandemic is still spreading at an alarming rate. So, what are the possibilities?
The tech industry has everything required to buttress every industry as they make efforts to adapt to the new normal. Take the tourism industry, for instance; virtual reality can be used to bring the travel experience into the home. As noted by Kamogelo, “If you haven’t thought about how tech will have an impact on your industry, then you are going to fall behind.” There is also a need to debunk the myth that technology will take over people’s jobs. In striving for innovation, we also need to constantly work towards inclusivity, an important factor of which is skills development.
Kamogelo believes that, on the journey to rebuilding South Africa, we need to focus on the following three important sectors:
- Education: People need to have easier access to knowledge and information to help with learning and skills development. For this to happen, data costs need to go down. The government should consider negotiating with the big five data providers. They need to somehow find a way to subsidise those costs.
- Health: We must look into developing platforms that will make quality health services easily accessible to all South Africans.
- Agriculture: Agritech and biotech are going to be big, not only in South Africa but on the continent as a whole.
The way forward
COVID-19 has highlighted the urgency of tech accessibility in South Africa, especially as it pertains to education and employment. Adaptation has become the hallmark of the current age and we need to work hard to ensure that no one is left behind.
We need to accelerate the development of entrepreneurship and digital skills. “Innovation shouldn’t only be left to the government, corporate needs to focus on that. The government should focus on developing institutions that foster the growth of entrepreneurs, which will enable them to develop the innovation required. Other sectors need to invest in innovation, we cannot have the financial sector, banks specifically, leading digital innovation; companies in the ICT space need to be leading in that space.”
If we are to fully realise the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa, and accelerate socio-economic development, we need to encourage young people to study IT-related subjects and provide the necessary mentorship and career guidance. There also needs to be more tech development projects for students, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, to help them improve their digital literacy and competence. Companies must identify ways in which they can play their part in cultivating digital skills and innovation. More independent digital companies, entrepreneurs and small companies need to start growing, and big corporates need to start investing in those companies aggressively.
To view the full Rebuilding South Africa Post COVID dialogue, click here.
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