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CeBIT raises the question: is the South African government failing the IT sector?

THE RECENT CeBIT trade fair in Hannover, Germany, illustrated yet again the stark contrast between government support for the ICT sector in the developed world and in SA.

CeBIT, one of the world`s biggest ICT trade shows, runs for six days and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. CeBIT`s organisers report that 4 157 companies from 68 countries exhibited at CeBIT 2010, with projects initiated at the event representing a total investment volume of overĀ  10 billion in six days.

South Africa was there, but its presence was fairly low-key - a small stand hosting seven local companies under the umbrella of the Department of Trade and Industry. In comparison, other countries had enormous stands, with exhibitors reporting that even Germany`s provincial stands outshone SA`s national stand.

And SA`s best ambassador to the event was not a government official or an ICT player - she was a spaza shop owner from rural Limpopo. The shopkeeper, Christina Marule, was a surprise highlight at the CeBIT opening ceremony. In line with the event`s theme, Connected Worlds, Marule explained how a programme initiated by had changed her working life, allowing her to order goods and have them delivered to her rural shop using only her cellphone. Her talk eloquently summed up the point of this year`s event - ICT can connect people across the world, from all walks of life, and has the power to turbo-charge economic development.


ICT`s role in boosting a country`s economy featured prominently throughout the show, with European heads of state wholeheartedly throwing their weight behind initiatives to develop the ICT sector for the good of their countries.

Spain, the partner country for this year`s event, showcased its progress since the Spanish government embarked on a multibillion-euro ICT development programme five years ago. Spanish Prime Minister JosĀ  Luis Zapatero said ICT development had had significant benefits for the Spanish economy and society as a whole. "With ICTs, we are modernising government and administration and the provision of public services. Ninety-six percent of transactions by administration are now carried out by telemarketing. And more than 15 million Spanish citizens have national IDs with an electronic signature. Spain is promoting online health services and 97% of our primary care physicians have electronic access to patient files."

"We have an environment where the knowledge society is of strategic importance in education - 98% of Spanish colleges have access to broadband and they have ICT equipment that is above EU average."

ICTs are also developing the tourism sector, he said. Zapatero noted that ICTs are strongly linked to a country`s economic competitiveness. "Approximately 40% of increases in productivity are due to ICTs," he said.

"We [Spain] have world leaders in defence and systems, and now one-third of air traffic all over the world is managed by Spanish IT systems. Our exports in ICT make up 3% of our GDP, so we are ahead of France and Italy in this respect."

Zapatero said Spain wanted to extend these benefits to Europe, by promoting a strategy that will accelerate the return of European economies to solid growth and stimulate the creation of employment and the value of ICTs.

"We have proposed a digital Europe and we would also like to promote the charter of user rights, security of networks and the protection of intellectual property rights, as well as the promotion of favourable environments for full development of the infrastructure and advanced services. In this context, we`d also like to promote the development of the single digital market that eliminates barriers and establishes balance between distribution and content services. Europe needs to make progress now in order not to lag behind other countries like the United States and new economies."

Opening the event, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr , echoed Zapatero`s sentiments about the importance of ICTs in a country`s economy, saying it was one of the major drivers of globalisation and progress. She added that more investment should be made into ICTs, with 10% of gross domestic product invested in research and education until 2015. She said more students needed to study maths and sciences, and noted that every government minister in Germany is now involved in ICT. "I`d like ICT to become the brand logo of the German economy," Merkel said.

While European leaders at CeBIT enthusiastically punted the economic benefits of an information society, South Africa`s government has been less forthcoming in its support. The SA DTI cut its budget for representation at CeBIT this year, just one more disappointment for the local ICT sector at the hands of the South African government.

The recent South African budget did not focus on ICTs, which local analysts did not find surprising. Finance minister " rel=tag>Pravin Gordhan made no mention of how government would cut the cost of communication, improve access to the Internet or how it would use ICT to aid SA`s development.

Earlier, " rel=tag>Jacob Zuma promised to cut the cost of communications during his State of the Nation address, but this was met with scepticism from various analysts, who said they had heard the same promise before. , MD of , told ITWeb: "I don`t think we should expect anything in terms of the value of ICTs being acknowledged." His view was echoed by , MD of telecommunications research at BMI-Techknowledge: "ICT is not a priority. We can expect the broadband strategy to move it up a few points, but it`s still right at the bottom."

While the South African government may have many urgent problems to address besides ICT development, industry players feel developing the ICT sector would help alleviate many social and economic ills. One area where the government could do more, they say, is boosting SA`s ICT industry image abroad.


Professor , director of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering at Wits University, who accompanied the South African delegation to CeBIT, noted in a column: "The ICT sector in SA is not well-known internationally. People don`t understand how innovative and competent South African ICT companies are. They don`t appreciate that we`ve been developing great IT applications in SA for decades. Nor do they understand that SA is a modern technological society, with impressive First World infrastructure and institutions."

The team behind Marule`s spaza shop getting connected was also present at CeBIT and commented on the amount of support the European ICT sector gets from governments.

Ishmael Adams and Simon Matumi, infopreneurs trained and supported by the Meraka Institute, run SMITE (IT) infopreneurs. Adams said the two men were introduced to SAP by their mentor, Johan van Rensburg, back in 2007. "Together we conducted research in co-operative buying. The first thing was to understand the pains experienced by individual spaza shop owners in stock replenishing, the processes, their suppliers and transportation behaviour. Christina Marule is one of over 70 spaza shop owners across the entire Kgautswane area, and is one of the 24 that we finally registered in our system," he said.

Adams said that while the two men were trained by Meraka, which falls under the CSIR, they still feel the South African government could do a great deal more to help the ICT sector grow in SA. "To my mind, the South African government is not doing enough - maybe because of lack of understanding or exposure to reality or maybe lack of willingness to see through the short-term comforts of the armchair. Otherwise, how does one explain the lack of ICT as a subject in all government schools? Government should introduce an ICT curriculum at school as early as grade 4 and have ABET classes also equipped to deal with the issue of ICT."

"They should also introduce strict policy to monitor the implementation of ICT and its effective introduction and application across the board. This should not only be a responsibility of business. Look at industrial countries like Germany. They are exporting technology while we are forced to import outdated ones.

"CeBIT showed one thing never before seen in SA. How governments come together and forge relations not only with each other, but industry as well. If you listened to Jose Luis Zapatero`s speech, he noted the impressive GDP growth that ICT had contributed to Spain in a relatively short period. This alone tells of the amount of attention given to ICT by some governments. Germany hosted CeBIT and that tells me that there is opportunity and willingness on the side of the government because they see the future as embedded in ICT." Adams said European governments certainly appear to give more attention to ICT. "South Africa needs to wake up and support ICT, and all those who are willing to be competitive in ICT."

, executive director of Dariel Solutions, who exhibited at CeBIT, said that while CeBIT had presented a good opportunity to expose South African ICTs to the world, more could have been done to present an impactful, cohesive message at the show.

"We could have done more homework," he said. The DTI presence at the show was a good opportunity for local companies to showcase their solutions, but more preparation and a cohesive message would have made more of an impact. He also noted the impressive support other countries` governments gave their ICT sectors.

"If you look at the speeches by the German and Spanish heads of state, the message was that the government needs to make IT available to transform the economy. SA`s IT is in a very different place. The South African government has other eggs to fry, but IT could make such a difference in SA. We just aren`t using it effectively. If the South African government had an IT strategy and took it seriously, the message would flow through to all the IT events they take part in," he commented.


While the government may not have focused on ICTs, there may be hope of more attention in future. The (DOC) recently unveiled a forum tasked with building an inclusive information society and knowledge economy in SA. The Information Society and Development (ISAD) Multi-Stakeholder Forum aims to bring together representatives of government, labour, business and civil society.

Deputy communications minister " rel=tag>Dina Pule said the South African government does recognise the central role that ICT, as an economic sector, has come to occupy in the South African economy. She said more needed to be done to address the universal access to ICT services to the country`s citizens, especially in terms of broadband, which remains largely unaffordable to large sections of the population.

DOC director-general Mamodupi Mohlala added that the DOC believes ICT is the cornerstone for development. "Africans have missed the industrial revolution, we can`t afford to miss the digital revolution," Mohlala said.

Written with input from ITWeb journalists and ITWeb CEO .

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