The government is in the final stages of its review on the ICT sector in South Africa after the publication of a discussion paper in November, prior to the launch of a set of policy recommendations early next year.

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The report brings together responses from a green paper unveiled in January 2014, which invited industry comments on policy options on a broad range of topics, including regulation, infrastructure and investment with a strong emphasis placed on the development of skills. Consultations in all nine provinces comprised meetings with industry stakeholders as well as four intergovernmental meetings.

According to the discussion paper, opportunities must be harnessed to create jobs in the ICT sector, across small, medium and large enterprises, as well as improved digital literacy. ?We need to ensure that the ICT sector contributes in the radical transformation of our country by contributing to the achievement of 5% economic growth and modernising the way government delivers services and how citizens access these services,? said telecoms minister Siyabonga Cwele at the launch of the paper.

Sector overhaul

The gazetting of the paper marks the last consultative stage before the submission of final recommendations to government and the tabling of the draft white paper, a policy position statement before legislation is enacted. The ICT green paper launched at the start of the year provided the first sector policy overview in more than 15 years. Industry observers lauded the paper for pulling together what has been an increasingly fragmented sector.

But South Africa?s approach to tackling ICT has come under fire. Analysts say spending excessive time on the politics and policy means that the country is falling behind other markets in Africa. Policymakers need to follow the example of countries, such as Kenya where a much smaller, more commercially-focused group is involved in discussions, said consultancy IDC.

?In South Africa, there is too much concentration on the politics of the technology market. The concern is more about how the pie is divided up rather than how we can work together to grow the size of the pie,? George Kalebaila, IDC senior research manager for telecoms and media in Africa, said in December.

Skills deficit

However, the move to deepen the ICT skills pool is timely. A report issued by the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) revealed the education system was failing to encourage students to take up a career in ICT, while many companies were unable to fill specialist positions, despite high unemployment. Research by IT multinational Cisco earlier this year estimated that South Africa had a shortfall of between 30,000 to 70,000 IT workers ? a deficit it said was restricting economic growth and limiting the country?s ability to compete internationally.

According to the JCSE annual ICT Skills Survey released in November, nearly 60% of businesses said that the struggle to find skilled workers was causing significant damage to their operations, while 28% of companies surveyed reported the same issue was having a minor impact on business operations.

The report also highlighted a lack of formal training in the industry, with 29% of ICT professionals who took part in the survey saying that learning on the job formed the majority of their training, while just 13% said the main source of skills acquisition was through a degree or a diploma.

In addition, the shortfall in skilled employees is incongruous with the economic climate, said Adrian Schofield, manager of the JCSE?s Applied Research Unit: ?There should be a surplus of employees in quiet economic times,? Schofield said at the launch of the survey?s findings. ?The South African economy is stagnant…people are unwilling to invest and that depresses the demand for skills.?

The survey identified five key areas where skills were in demand and staffing gaps appeared: software as a service/cloud computing; network infrastructure; information security; application development and business intelligence.

However, the issue is hardly unique to South Africa?s ICT sector: ?In many ways, Africa?s greater challenge is in soft connectivity ? the education, skills, and innovation needed to be globally competitive,? Orlando Ayala, Corporate Vice-President & Chairman Emerging Markets, Microsoft told OBG earlier this year. ?Investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education has fallen behind the rest of the world, and Africa will need to close the gaps in these areas to take full advantage of mobile- and cloud-driven opportunities,? he added.

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