|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East II 2003|
|Topic:||Information Communications Technology in the South African Context|
|Organisation:||Hewlett-Packard, South Africa|
Although 80% of South Africa’s population still has little or no access to ICT, initiatives such as the Government Gateway will provide citizens with services centred on births, death, pension payouts and immunization programmes. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are the key to taking e-government forward, but these partnerships must meet black economic empowerment (BEE) criteria that have yet to be defined. Wi-Fi can also bring important advantages to South Africa, but legal questions regarding its deployment must be resolved first.
The information and communications technology (ICT) sector in South Africa is undergoing a number of dramatic changes that will have far reaching consequences for those who conduct business in this market. E-government; empowerment criteria for industry players; the competitive environment and the legislative framework around wireless fidelity are just some of the issues that need extensive examination. Technological advancements have enabled the South African government to begin implementing its vision for e-government. The Government Gateway, which is a one-stop site and call centre, will provide citizens with government information centred on life events such as births, deaths, pension payouts and immunization programmes. The creation of on-line public services will bring about efficiencies of cost and process, by the replacement of manual procedures with automation, and provide South Africans with greater access to government services. The reality that exists in this market, however, is that approximately 80% of the population has little or no access to technology so government has a doubly difficult task of continuing to deliver services to its people in an effective manner while attempting to bridge the digital divide amongst its citizens. The most significant challenge that faces the South African government at present will be to balance the demands of a few very literate, very demanding customers, with a majority who may never be exposed to the technology that more technologically advanced nations take for granted. Our organisation has developed a number of projects in collaboration with partners around the world, including governments, international organisations, NGOs, and local leaders to deliver culturally relevant products and solutions to better meet the needs of communities in underserved markets. In these programmes, we use technology not as an end in itself but as an enabler to address economic development and broaden access to social and economic opportunities. We also recognise that financial capital alone is not the greatest wealth we can bring to the developing world; it is human capital, experience, knowledge, and the ability to use those skills to empower communities in which we operate. The premise we operate with is that as government and business become more technologically advanced, so should individuals. This is the long-term goal. In the short to medium term, however, it is important to address the myriad change management issues involved in transferring a paper-based public service into a real-time, dynamic virtual environment through the Government Gateway. The first phase of the Government Gateway portal is expected to be completed within the next few months. General consensus, from both government and the private sector, is that partnership is the key to taking e-government forward, hence the establishment of a number of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). The government realises that it needs to focus on governing the country and delivering services to its citizens – hence the ‘Batho Pele’ principle, which encapsulates the government’s drive toward better service delivery. Outsourcing the deployment of its IT infrastructure requirements, maintenance and other related functions is a strategy that the government has adopted in order to better focus on delivering on its mandate. In order for government to partner with private companies, these companies must meet certain black economic empowerment (BEE) criteria. This is a difficulty in that there is no formal charter in place against which industry members can be measured. In line with the government’s black economic empowerment strategy, the Information and Communications Empowerment Charter Working Group was formed in June 2003. The working group has been tasked with setting a framework for the development of this charter, to be adopted next year, which will set the minimum standard for empowerment in the industry and sets time frames within which this is to be achieved. The crucial issues, amongst those being dealt with by the working group, are skills transfer and training. There is a clear and certain need to redress the imbalances of the past. The debate focuses on whether true empowerment lies in ownership alone or whether companies which provide relevant skills training to employees belonging to previously disadvantaged groups, are considered to be empowerment agents. Most multi-national organisations operating in South Africa have opted to implement the latter, as the purchase of equity could be complicated due to corporate structures. Industry members feel strongly that the charter should provide a scorecard against which companies will be measured. Employment equity, social responsibility, skills transfer and training as well as procurement policies are just some of the criteria that should be included on the scorecard and used as a measurement for companies as they bid for business. These criteria should apply regardless of whether the vendor is locally or internationally owned. The debate about purchasing locally produced products has recently been brought to the forefront when numerous contracts were awarded to international vendors. Competition in the South African market is cut-throat; there are a good many local and international companies vying for a limited pool of business. The reality is that the ICT industry has suffered many setbacks in the last few years. From the heady successes of the 80s and 90s, where ICT stocks topped international stock markets, to the ‘dotbomb’ crash and the resultant demise of previously strong players, the industry has been shaken to the core. The days when ICT professionals bought technology to satisfy the need to have the latest gadgets available are a thing of the past. Business decision-makers are demanding more value from their IT investments; only those companies that can help organisations adapt to their changing environments and deliver true value will continue to thrive in this economy. Another key driver for success is innovation. The latest innovation to take the South African market by storm is the ‘hotspot’ – a point of presence that users with wireless access cards can use to connect to the Internet, and ultimately their corporate networks. Businesses worldwide are beginning to see the value of wireless networks and South African companies are not far behind. For many commercial notebook purchases, wireless LAN is already a checklist item that vendors have to offer if they are going to win a sale. Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) has a number of benefits including the fact that employees can maintain more frequent contact with client and co-workers and enjoy greater flexibility to work almost anywhere. There are, however some issues that need to be considered. The first is security of corporate networks when employees simply do not take sufficient precautions when accessing the network through wireless connectivity. Recent incidents have brought the issue of security sharply into focus. A number of viruses have been circulating globally. The most notorious being the Blaster worm which is a virus that exploits a recently discovered vulnerability in Microsoft operating systems. The virus began spreading on the Internet late in August 2003. Within 10 days, the worm had infected over 200 000 PCs. Many of the machines infected belonged to home users who are not as security conscious as commercial users. However, commercial users are becoming increasingly vulnerable as corporate networks become exposed through the use of wireless LAN and hotspots. Just being connected to the Internet with an unguarded and unprotected machine could be enough to infect any corporate network. Going forward, the adoption of wireless LAN and the proliferation of hotspots will be governed by the effectiveness of the security measures that the Internet Service Providers and hardware vendors are able to provide. Another key issue concerning wireless fidelity, and particularly hotspots, to consider is their legality. While the use of Wi-Fi equipment is not illegal in South Africa, the provision of wireless Internet access is. Wi-Fi may only be used within the confines of private property; using it in a WAN environment, for example, is not permitted. ICASA, the independent communications authority of South Africa, which regulates the telecommunications industry, has issued a discussion document on Wi-Fi, in which it states that it is aiming to facilitate the provision of telecommunication services using Wi-Fi. The paper, however, also states clearly that it is only looking at doing so on a customer’s premises, a single piece of land, or continuous pieces of land owned by the same person. A number of organisations have begun deploying hotspots around the country and, with the proliferation of these services; ICASA will have to take a very close look at revising the regulations governing wireless fidelity. It has been said that change is the only constant, and that this industry obeys the Charles Darwin dictum that states, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Conclusion The South African government must be commended on the steps it has already taken in terms of the legislative framework in place. The e-government initiative is further evidence that the government is committed to improve service delivery to the citizens of our nation. We look forward to working with the government, industry members and our partners to build a stronger South African economy.