Government loves talking about tech but it’s not pushing the envelope

This week government, specifically the Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma helped launch a Digital Innovation Lab at the University of Limpopo. The minister is the chancellor of the university.

The lab was made possible through a collaboration with the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, and Samsung Electronics South Africa.

While referred to as a lab by the minister, according to the University of Limpopo’s website, the lab is a software development programme aimed at empowering “25 unemployed youths through a 10-month Software Development (SWD) initiative”.

This programme will reportedly introduce coding fundamentals and digital social innovation to address unemployment.

“The digital revolution, fuelled by the rise of Artificial Intelligence and other innovations, presents both profound opportunities and complex challenges. While technology empowers human progress, it can also exacerbate existing inequalities across lines of class, race, gender and location. This is the reason this Digital Innovation Lab has the potential to be an equaliser, ensuring that the University of Limpopo is at the forefront of nurturing talent and providing accessible training opportunities that equip learners and educators alike with the skills crucial for navigating the complexities of the 21st century,” said Dlamini Zuma.

The minister spent much of her speech talking about how technology creates a divide among genders and income classes in South Africa. We can’t refute those statements because they are true. A child in a low-income household doesn’t have the same access to technology that a child in a high-income household might. Women routinely play second fiddle to men in the technology sector and the pay gap between men and women can be drastic.

Education can help in changing these facts especially when it comes to putting technology into the hands of learners from low-income households. While firms like Samsung can assist, the onus to drive education in technology is on the government.

Within Dlamini Zuma’s speech launching the software development programme, the minister highlighted several ways that the “digital revolution for educational settings” is being hampered.

These include:

  • Lack of standardised, quality, digital educational content;
  • The high cost of data,
  • Limited connectivity in rural areas;
  • Lack of support structures for educators to develop their skills further;
  • Limited teacher training and development;
  • Lack of investment into emerging technologies;
  • Insufficient access to reliable digital connectivity, computers, and technology devices.

Each of those points can, and should have been addressed by the government by now.

As regards the issue of connectivity and the cost thereof, this has been hampered by constantly delayed spectrum auctions, delayed fibre backbone installations and an SA Connect project that has been running for over a decade and shows no sign of reaching completion anytime soon. The issues we face now around connectivity is the result of a government that drags its feet at every opportunity so that members of that government can delay projects and feast.

The high cost of data is a daily bugbear for South Africans but it often takes a celebrity launching a campaign for government to take notice. The last time government was forced looked at the cost of data was 2016/17, and since then the situation has all but reverted to what it was thanks to an ailing economy, a higher cost of living and a lack of increases to salaries.

The lack of education content is also the fault of the government given that it is ultimately in charge of the curriculum. This is a tightrope walk however as some technologies come and go so quickly that adding them to the curriculum would be a waste of time. But determining which technologies to focus on and which to ignore should be a focus of the Department of Basic Education. While the private sector can assist in that regard it doesn’t have the final say on what is taught in schools and what isn’t.

Finally, when it comes to access to hardware and software, once again we need to turn to the government which has copped to paying double the market price for ICT equipment.

There are myriad examples of the government talking up tech solutions only for that to eventually be revealed as just that, talk.

It’s all good and well for government to highlight the problems that technology has put into sharp relief but it also needs to address and solve those problems in a meaningful capacity.

Giving 25 people the basics of software development simply isn’t enough to move the needle in a country with a population of 60 million.

[Image – WOKANDAPIX from Pixabay]


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