SA needs a digital regulator to keep up with the fast-changing exponential growth of technology

The President of the Republic-South Africa established the Fourth Industrial Revolution Commission to advise the government on moving towards a digitally transformed society and future. Like many countries around the world, South Africa awoke to find itself catapulted into a digital reality of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that only seven months ago seemed to be on the distant horizon. The global catastrophe of the novel coronavirus pandemic has without warning plunged the world into the deep end of a public health, economic and social pandemonium with no option but to leverage digital innovations.

The digitally mature have taken advantage of the emergent technologies of cloud computing, internet of things, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced data analytics, augmented and virtual reality, autonomous robots and unmanned (autonomous) vehicles in the fight against the pandemic. The software-defined, data-enabled and cloud-native future is here.

We have front row seats to witness technology redefine life as we know it globally, across all sectors, industries and facets of life. The precipitated adoption and diffusion of new digital tools are exposing the shortcomings of traditional models even as people work remotely using online tools and services. Economies are reorganising as digital platforms reconfigure unique value-creating ecosystems. Therefore, we cannot continue on our current trajectory.

For South Africa to reap the benefits of emerging opportunities and overcome long-held barriers to economic freedom, we must pay attention to legislative and regulatory frameworks as critical digital enablers. The world of exponential technology is developing fast and now more than ever, the digital regulator who could keep pace with global trends and ensure that South Africa is not left behind is vital. For example, the 5G technology is more complex, software-driven and cloud-native. It is a platform rather than a network and requires a regulator that would enable its entire ecosystem in South Africa.

The 5G technology requires a digital regulator that fully understands the software aspects of networks and its relationship to spectrum. Given the critical role that the open-source community plays in pioneering 5G standards, the digital regulator must encourage and promote open standards in South Africa. Regulatory bodies also need to become active members of various open-source projects like Open Radio Access Network Alliance (ORAN), Open Platform for Network Functions Virtualisation (OSPNFV) and Open Network Automation Platform to ensure that they are up to date with global progress in this space.

The digital regulator also needs to acknowledge and understand both the software enablement of networks and dynamic spectrum sharing. The softwarisation of networks through technologies such as Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) introduces a radical change in network architectures. To adequately regulate this shift, we need a regulator that is familiar with both the software and hardware aspects of networks.

Positioning South Africa for digital transformation will require state funding to stimulate the economy for digital transformation. The multiplier effect of this economic stimulus will translate into new skills and jobs, digital products, essential services, solutions and a new social contract. This digital mandate calls for new state capabilities and capacity to meet the expectations of the digital era, leveraging digital innovations to fashion the public sector into being capable and socially responsive to expand citizen participation, improve service delivery as well as build trust.

We cannot separate the importance of data from the public sector and citizens. Open

government data makes public sector data available for use. Along with big data and analytics, open government data provides visibility and access to volumes of available information about the government, business, and populations. Open government data can also promote transparency and accountability of public entities. Public data can, therefore, assist policymakers in making evidence-based decisions, ensuring state-public understanding, strengthening public trust, and encouraging civic engagement with political processes.

Therefore, data privacy and security in the context of a data strategy is integral to regulation. There must be a thorough understanding of processes and activities related to data treatment along the value chain from collection to use. There is a need to balance and ensure the protection of privacy, promote data security and drive open data-enabled innovation.

Governments need to adopt a holistic ecosystem view of digital transformation as digital technologies are highly interdependent and co-exist in a dynamic ecosystem. To ensure its far-reaching benefits, establishing and supporting the digital ecosystem at national, provincial, local and sector levels is paramount. Most importantly, the state itself has to digitally transform if it is to compete globally in the digital age. We need to promote connectivity at all levels of society, ensure access and availability of open data models, develop digital talent for research, innovation and entrepreneurship, remove regulatory barriers and open up access to finance as well as markets.

In conclusion, technology will continue to develop and positively transform societies, create new industries and innovations that are beyond our wildest imaginations. As a country, we need to ensure that we create an enabling environment taking into account both foreign and domestic changes. The foundation of this is a modern regulatory framework that creates a conducive environment for investments yet ensures equity in society.

Andile Ngcaba is the founder and Chairman of Convergence Partners Investments. He is also an Internet technology investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist.

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Andile Ngcaba

Andile Ngcaba is the founder and Chairman of Convergence Partners Investments. He is also an Internet technology investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist.