South Africa has successfully navigated its first decade of freedom and, generally speaking, it's been a resounding success. The economy has shown positive and sustained growth, with the outlook for the next few years looking decidedly rosy.
However, the 25% of South African breadwinners still unemployed may argue that things are still looking pretty much the same for them. Fortunately, this state of affairs could soon change – and IT has a pivotal role to play in the transformation.
Jo Melville, MD of Futurex & Equip organiser Exhibitions for Africa, points out that the IT sector could be the driving force behind making manufacturing and local industries more competitive and better able to create the millions of new jobs that South Africa requires.
"The Accelerated & Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA) aims to cut poverty and unemployment in half by 2014," she explains. "But, if we expect to achieve these goals, the economy needs to continue or better its current improvement rates, while job creation must be substantially stepped up."
According to a recent AsgiSA report, the goal of reducing unemployment to below 15% and halving the poverty rate to less than one-sixth of households will not be achieved without sustained and strategic economic leadership from government, and effective partnerships between government and stakeholders such as labour and business.
The University of Johannesburg's Professor Roy Marcus believes the solution lies in a re-energised manufacturing sector which will achieve global competitiveness through the clever use of information and communication technologies.
"If you were to do a survey of newly-independent countries (NICs) you would find that when they initiated their transformation, there were a number of very important key indicators that they adhered to," says Prof Marcus, who is also an adviser to government.
"In most cases, manufacturing was identified as a nett job creator and, in turn, a wealth creator; governments identified key strategic areas to focus their limited resources; they understood that they have to be globally competitive to succeed; and, finally, they designed education to dovetail with the key strategic areas while also focusing heavily on technology."
Prof Marcus harks back to the emphasis ex-President Nelson Mandela has always placed on the manufacturing sector as a job creator, but believes the country has so far failed to take up the challenge and make it a reality.
"Most of the successful NICs took a macro approach to manufacturing and all government departments focused on the same outcomes. In South Africa, we've had a scatter-gun approach with not enough alignment in terms of education, economics, industry and technology focus around single key initiatives."
Fortunately, he says, AsgiSA and the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa) have taken a leaf from the book of other successful NICs and outline how South Africa can embark on focused initiatives. Underpinning these initiatives, about R370-billion has been earmarked for public enterprise investment expenditure.
AsgiSA has outlined plans to grow South Africa's broadband network; rapidly reduce telephony costs; complete a submarine cable project that will provide competitive and reliable international access – especially to Africa and Asia; and encourage the establishment of telecommunications, as well as labour-intensive businesses in poor areas.
With focused government and private sector initiatives and positive partnerships between these two players and the unions, Prof Marcus believes the South African manufacturing sector could triple its output and make the South African dream a reality.
"There is an inextricable link between technology and competitive advantage," he adds.
"Government's science and technology policies aim to ensure that the country has enough telecommunications infrastructure and IT infrastructure and resources to make the digital world a reality.
"However, to become a global player we need to improve manufacturing competitiveness – and the dominant glue to making this happen is IT systems."
Prof Marcus points out that IT has a vital role to play from conceptualisation and design to the manufacturing process itself where processes from supply chain to the assembly line are reliant on sophisticated IT systems to operate at maximum efficiency.
"Ultimately, when you start looking at the country's competitiveness, IT will help to ensure that South Africa can play on the world stage. The reality is that we need to get the right tools to make it happen."
He adds that too many companies and individuals still view IT as a job-stealer. "This is a misconception: IT doesn't steal jobs – but it does create a different type of worker and a new skills base. If applied judiciously, IT will increase jobs because it will increase competitive advantage."
Melville adds that one of the cornerstones of Futurex & Equip this year is the use of technology in the industrial and manufacturing sectors, with the aim of helping companies use IT to become more competitive and better able to succeed in the global market.
"Globalisation is a reality and South African companies need to be able to compete without being reliant solely on a weak rand," she says. "IT can be a major enabler in increasing productivity, improving efficiency and therefore lowering the cost of producing goods and services."
Futurex & Equip will be held from 15-18 May 2007 at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg.