South Africa has some strong performers in its Internet and communications technologies (ITCT) activity, but the country doesn't seem to be making them a real part of its development strategy, and that's too bad.
Let's begin with the Successes
Paypal was born from the fusion of two companies, one of which was X.com, created by South Africa's Elon Musk. Musk is better known today for Tesla, maker of electric sports cars, and Space X, the first private company to put a spaceship into orbit and land it safely (May 22, 2012).
Mark Shuttleworth made a fortune when he sold his cryptography program to VeriSign. He used the money he acquired form the purchase to become the first African in space, and to create a foundation funding "innovative changes in society." He created and leads Ubuntu, the open-source and "convivial" PC operating system.
Mxit.com is a platform for chat, payment and gaming that has over 50 million users in 12 countries, mainly in southern countries . Let's add to this list the Amazon web services developed in the Cape by Chris Pinkham. Still, after a spending a week in South Africa, I left with the impression that IT wasn't a strategic priority.
For example, consider what three of my interviewees told me.
Pontsho Maruping, director of industrial sectors at the Technology Innovation Agency in Pretoria, manages government support for innovation in energy, mining and cutting-edge manufacturing. ICTs follows the three industries in importance. "To be honest," Maruping says, "I think we don't give them a more important role because we're strong in the other sectors, so we can create innovative approaches there." ICTs are appreciated for their overall contributions but, Maruping says, "coordination is definitely not as good as it should be."
Across the country, Walter Baets directs the University of Cape Town's Gratuate School of Business. According to him, IT "constitutes a low-priced development tool whose costs of access are much less than other industries. But, he says, there "is not enough thinking about how to use information technologies for social innovation." This is where he's trying to direct his students. He's in the process of creating an incubator and wants to use one-third of its space for technology companies. It's still not giving technology a strategic position.
Andrea Bohmert runs Silicon Cape Initiative, a Cape Town start-up community, which places her on the side of those who wish the country was doing more in this area. She attributes a good part of the country's half-hearted efforts to the fact that, as a sector, it's "90% white and 90% male." Therefore, it is not a priority for the government. She also says that IT is more appreciated for its enabling role while "the government's priority is in what has an immediate effect on people's lives. I wish it was different, but I understand the big picture."
She is not alone in thinking this. But even worse, there is a chance that the lack of IT initiatives could contribute to reducing the country's role in Africa. The Economist recently wrote about the country's chances of retaining its preeminence. Nigeria, for example, relies on its petrol supplies and the fact that its population is three times the size of South Africa's. Kenya is much smaller, but it clearly seems to be wagering on information technologies in its development strategy. This is something that will be increasingly necessary to consider in regional and global geopolitical analyses.