Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Prof Hlengiwe Mkhize, talks about the road to a connected South Africa and the importance of partnering with the private sector for positive outcomes.

Tell us about your background and interest in healthcare.

I’m a health person – I’ve always had a medical perspective because I am a qualified clinical psychologist. When I was studying I focused a lot on trauma and violence and its impact on children, woman and society. This was during the political upheaval of Apartheid, a time when detentions and forced removal caused a lot of trauma at the community level.

Apartheid had a tremendous impact on families due to the number of people having to go into exile, being imprisoned and of course the number of young people dying. Therefore it was important to think of approaches that could help young people focus on resilience because we didn’t want to end up with a lost generation; we wanted to ensure that people would remain functional – those who wanted to study should study, and those who were already working needed to remain functional and continue to build a life for themselves.

From there my entry into politics was really circumstantial because of the work I was doing in the area of political psychology.

Tell us about your mandate as Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services.

I’ve spent several years looking at the use of technology as a vehicle for better outcomes. When I was the Deputy Minister of Higher Education in 2011, I included ICT as an essential component of our strategy to improve educational outcomes.  And then when the mandate was issued to rollout broadband to the most remote rural areas, educational institutions were prioritised along with health facilities, government facilities and police stations in NHI districts.

Prior to broadband rollout we connected schools in collaboration with operators in the private sector that have a universal service obligation to connect schools and make sure that teachers are trained in the use of ICT, etc. In that time, we connected a number of schools in rural areas and moved huge strides towards fulfilling our mandate.  Of course, that process had its own challenges because some of the teachers resisted technology because they felt that it was going to be a waste of time. But what helped was to have emerging champions for ICT like the Gauteng MEC for Education, Panyaza Lesufi, who said that all schools must go paperless and parents should register their children for school online.

Since the broadband rollout strategy was announced we know that rollout is a very slow process, but at least we understand what the challenges are. The Department of Health (DoH) needs to work with their IT people in the public health sector to make sure that they are trained in line with the National Development Plan (NDP) and to cooperate with the private sector because they are not going to be able to achieve anything on their own. Of course the private sector also needs to be acknowledged for the work they are already doing in this space, such as the eHealth projects Vodacom is involved with.

How does the government want to engage with the private sector? What is the key to successful Public Private Partnerships (PPP)?

On the one hand, the private sector has a social responsibility to support educational institutions and healthcare facilities. However, to fully benefit we need to have more serious engagements around the practicalities of working together. For example, it’s been brought to our attention that private mobile operators need more spectrum to be able to assist with government projects, which is actually one of our goals with the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper.

In terms of our policy, when we talk about open-access we are saying that government will take responsibility for ICT infrastructure and we’ll allow all operators to use it freely which will reduce the costs. In the past, the use of spectrum enabled operators like Vodacom and MTN to become the giants they are today. Now we are saying that the benefit of spectrum should expand to promote inclusion; transformation of the sector; development of SMMEs; enterprise development; and skills and innovation capacity. The question is how do we ensure that everyone is happy and feels supported?

While there is willingness and a commitment to collaborate with the private sector, I realise that we haven’t engaged with them enough. We’ve had meetings with them, but when you look at the goals of the NDP, we have to collaborate continuously to reach the desired outcomes.

For me, the dilemma has been around new entrants who position themselves as though they can do without established players. If you look at models where people have benefited from government empowerment policies, it works better when there are partnerships. The empowering company already has a value chain and networks in the big market that can carry the new entrants until they’re established. Historically, we have seen how even our cooperatives don’t really succeed, not because these people aren’t capable, but because they don’t have the networks and know-how. They need partnerships with established players. That’s why we have to push on both sides during negotiation.

Can you share with us any immediate plans of the Department to help move SA more into the digital era?

In terms of our ICT Policy White Paper, the priority is to rollout ICT infrastructure, especially to areas where the CSIR has identified gaps in service to areas with sizeable populations but no connectivity.

There’s also the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) led eGovernment initiative underway to put government services online. This is part of a global government initiative to ensure that governments are open and transparent to counteract corruption and promote efficiency and service delivery to citizens. Technology is at the centre of that and so far the project has been a great success, especially in the Department of Home Affairs.

eSkilling is also very important and we’ve already initiated discussions with relevant departments like Health and Education to start budgeting for it. They already have a budget for professional development, but it’s important to develop people’s skills in the use of technology as well. This is applicable to nurses and doctors in the age of eHealth so that they can effectively use technology to manage patients, become more efficient in providing care and effectively refer patients along the healthcare pathway.

SITA has been in the press numerous times for abrupt changes in leadership and for being ineffective in their role. How is your department trying to change that?

Historically SITA has been a floating agency – at one time they were under Public Service administration, then they were under Communications and now they are under us. Part of our strategy to improve SITA’s role is around leadership. We recently recruited a new CEO, Dr Setumo Mohapi,  who has technical knowledge and a proven track record as a successful  CEO in his role at Santech. We also dismissed board members who couldn’t account for mismanagement and poor decisions. I’m confident that these changes together with adequate support, Dr Mohapi will be able to lead a turnaround for the better.

Can you talk to us a little bit more about SA Connect – where it is now and what’s the next step?

SA Connect is a broad policy which aims to create information societies. The ICT Policy White Paper that I previously referred to focuses on the ‘how’ part. We have NDP targets around connectivity, such as fast internet speeds and wireless networks, etc. which require the rapid deployment of technologies. The initial policy was initiated a few years ago, but tabling of the Integrated ICT Policy White Paper has taken us a step further towards the deployment of technology. We’re now expected to actually make it happen.

The complexity and scale of this next stage is why partnerships with the private sector is crucial now more than ever. The drive for technology or creating a digital society calls for ambassadors and champions and key players, people who have a passion for it and who want to make a difference.

Can you give us some examples of these champions you’re referring to?

One of our local doctors recently went to study in Canada and worked with health IT specialists. He fell in love with healthcare data and now wants to come back home and focus on developing a new skillset in the workforce by training young graduates and professionals in the importance and uses of health data. Knowing the prevalence of certain health conditions, population health trends and data-driven prevention measures could completely transform primary healthcare and make a marked difference on some of the socio-economic issues we are dealing with.

In another example, National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa (NEMISA) are training people from rural areas in digital skills and technology. They have formed laboratories that are at a university level and competitive with facilities of engineering. The whole idea behind the training was to work with the private sector to upskill people, particularly those working in the front-line of government departments like Health so that their skills can be utilised immediately to improve processes and quality. It’s really a new way of thinking about training – not only traditional academic training, but practical training that is linked to what will help people to drive the economy immediately.

Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

ICT presents a real opportunity to positively impact all aspects of basic service delivery in health, education, transportation, energy and beyond.

In the age of the Internet of Things (IoT) no one entity should or can stand alone. Connectivity and technology is essential to establishing a modern, sophisticated society and create opportunities to reverse troubling realities in this country such as the high rate of unemployment in youths.

The future is smart and doesn’t differentiate whether you are in a village or in a big city, it’s another playing field whereby everyone can participate and benefit. As a next step, we need to align ourselves to that common goal, and focus our efforts on developing and harnessing skills, innovation and resources to take that enormous step forward as an economy and a nation.

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