Massive and wide-ranging investments in South Africa’s ICT infrastructure and skills development have suddenly become the rage.
Largely ignored, considered a "nice-to-have" or regarded as a necessary evil in the public sector for many years; exploited by the private sector as a platform to be used in secrecy or selfish isolation to create competitive advantage, ICT is now euphemistically being referred to as a "national imperative".
Rocketed into the public domain in the aftermath of the cabinet "lekgotla" over the past weekend, the country’s focus on ICT is long overdue.
While "techno-geeks" have long promoted the benefits of developing a cost-effective and efficient ICT infrastructure; while the private sector has long bemoaned the critical shortage of ICT skills and the premiums they have to pay to retain qualified staff; and while politicians have paid lip services to how ICT can facilitate development, create jobs and advance the lot of the previously disadvantaged – not only in South Africa but across the continent – very little real and meaningful effort has been been put in to coordinating a national strategy to address these challenges.
Even now, as the President launches a commitment to move things along, it’s not clear how this will be achieved.
On the one had the bureaucrats must be rubbing their hands with glee – in anticipation of how they are going to be able to entrench themselves in jobs for the next decade as they get down to developing new ICT policies; drafting new legislative and regulatory statues and then forming new advisory and controlling bodies.
Many players in the private sector, particularly ICT companies and their vendor partners, will also be jumping for joy as somewhere down the line they will be bidding for lucrative government and other contracts to roll out the infrastructure or develop skills.
In an ideal world these and many other vested interests would be set aside.
As one authoritative analyst has pointed out, much of what is required to be done should be left to private enterprise to sort out on the basis of free and fair competition with state control and interference kept to a minimum.
It’s going to be interesting to see how quickly these latest government initiatives become bogged down in red tape and bureaucratic bungling.
Let’s hope the e-Natis system is not a preview of government-inspired ICT developments to come and that administrative management of any plan is not a replay of "Tata ma Chance".
– David Bryant