Kathy Gibson reports from GovTech in Cape Town – The State IT Agency (SITA) and the industry as a whole have been challenged to develop strategies and services that will allow IT to empower South Africans across the board,

Trevor Manuel, Minister in the Presidency, opened GovTech today by throwing down the gauntlet to delegates.

He points out that South Africa used to lead the world in some technologies – for instance state-owned SAMES used to manufacture electronic boards for global cellular companies while the country was a satellite television pioneer – we have let ourselves slip from these leadership positions.

“Government itself, about a decade ago, had an IT advisory council to the president, where the heads of international IT companies would fly in and talk to the president about opportunities: that has gone too,” Manuel says.

In addition, e-government initiative begun about 10 years ago – including the training of cabinet ministers in e-cabinet systems – has fallen by the wayside along with a commitment to open source initiatives.

“I want to ask IT: why have you allowed this slippage on your watch?”

Manuel points out that in some areas, there are still positive stories, such as the Stats SA app that puts a wealth of statistical information in users’ hands.

“IT is the great leveller,” he says. “But if we aren’t careful and clear about what we want to achieve, it can become the great divider. This is the challenge, what we need to wake up and what we must change.

“For instance, there are six upstream cable systems that should allow us to extend bandwidth to every area in South Africa. Our challenge is to close the gaps, and never again allow ourselves to be delayed by silliness.

“Part of this is the consciousness that the rest of the world won’t wait until we are ready: we need to understand that and engage now.”

He cites time-wasting debates that include standards for set top boxes, currently still on the table, and reminded delegates how South Africa almost didn’t allow the Seacom cable to land over internal squabbles.

“In fact, the constitution doesn’t give us an option: it says we must improve the quality of life of each person and free the potential of each person. It doesn’t say we can leave people behind. We recognise that IT, the great enabler, can help us release the potential of each person. We can push the boundaries of enablement through IT.”

Manuel laid down eight challenges for GovTech delegates, and the industry as a whole.

They are finding ways that IT can solve challenges in: e-government, education and healthcare; they include finding ways to ensure security and privacy, improving administration systems; and the ability to use information differently; also enabling dignity and human rights; and embracing the opportunities that open source offers.