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SONA, government, private enterprise and crossing the digital divide

By Tumi Sekhukhune-Chamayou, Chief Enterprise Business Officer

When President Cyril Ramaphosa takes his place in Parliament to deliver his highly anticipated SONA address this week and addresses the challenges facing the South African economy, he will obliquely be spotlighting the importance of having a digitised public service and renewing the focus on the role that digital services must play in creating an equitable society.       

South Africa, like many countries globally, faces financial constraints. While our government is working to support digital infrastructure projects and meet the increasing needs of building a digital society, it cannot pursue this task alone.

Recognising the potential of an innovative Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and telecommunications sector, there’s a push to utilise these capabilities more in the public sector. This collaborative effort has led to the growth of digital services, providing citizens easy access to services such as applying for driver’s licenses, registration for personal documentation, and other necessities.

Simultaneously, digital operators are being acknowledged for what they are: vital resources whose abilities enable them to be drivers of economic growth and contributors to government and private sector efforts aimed at removing the digital barriers that isolate some communities and hinder their full participation in the economy.

Drawing on some local MTN experiences as reference points, digital services have been instrumental in helping make South Africa’s digital future across all levels of society a reality.

In 2021, the RT15 2021 ‘Transversal Contract’ saw state entities creating a single source for their mobile communication services. This development allowed the government to reduce costs and simplify contact across vital functions, including air operations, special task forces, sea, rail, satellite, and other critical functions.

The scale of the government’s requirements saw MTN create new systems and products that benefitted the state and led to significantly improved mobile telecommunications service delivery beyond the government sphere.

The agility and ability of digital services to mobilise for the public good were demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the allocation of temporary spectrum by the telecommunications regulator, more than 1 000 health and education sites were zero-rated. The reach to underserved communities was improved, while free use of the resources contributed to increased awareness and action against contracting the virus.

Social development and building better lives cannot be achieved without digital literacy. Digital literacy is a crucial pillar of education but still presents a major stumbling block in rural areas. Closing this gap, the most significant barrier to enabling all to compete equally in society remains one of the nation’s primary concerns.

Embracing the call from the state that every South African, regardless of economic status and location, should be digitally connected has seen the industry responding with programmes that are steadily helping to achieve this objective.

An MTN example of this commitment to ‘connecting the unconnected’ is the development of the ultra-rural network expansion drive. Examples of this initiative include the Eastern Cape, where communities near Lusikisiki were assisted with an LTE network. In KwaZulu Natal, the Msinga and Mhlabuyalingana received similar treatment and were connected.

The MTN Foundation, established to assist with identifying and introducing educational connectivity programmes, has connected more than 300 schools. The School Digitisation programme also identifies communities that would benefit from permanent facilities and builds and equips media centres.

 The network modernisation programme and 5G deployment are other initiatives designed to equip South Africans with the skills and facilities to prosper in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These programmes enable the deployment of advanced networks and expand our cities to become future smart cities.

Outlined are initiatives, both public and private, aimed at fostering national development. In some cases, the company is a supplier to the government that lends its expertise to enabling the government to reach its objectives. In other cases, especially those led by social development and education departments, objectives can only be achieved through developing complementary state and public efforts through formal public and private partnerships (PPPs). In MTN’s case, these have included provincial governments, municipalities, and the National Department of Basic Education.

Working with the government, however, does not require that formal PPPs be established to facilitate all programmes. Defined Corporate Independent Social Investment programmes can help achieve national aims through associations with NGOs working within communities or in partnership with local leaders.

Where common objectives exist, the emphasis, we believe, should be on leveraging relationships between government departments and suppliers. Together, we can identify projects that enhance South Africans’ technical capabilities and ensure our ability to compete on the digital world stage.