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Trevor Manuel challenges IT community

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Trevor Manuel has issued a challenge to the IT community to help South Africa gain lost ground in narrowing the digital divide and to hold itself accountable for achieving this.

Manuel, Minister in the Presidency in charge of the National Planning Commission, was delivering the opening address at last week’s GovTech 2013, the State Information Technology Agency’s (SITA) annual conference for organisations involved in delivering ICT solutions to the Public Service.

The chair of the SITA board, Jerry Vilakazi, pointed out that the successful execution of the National Development Plan (NDP) hinges on a well-orchestrated, well-implemented ICT plan. ‚”The absence of this will negatively impact ordinary citizens by not improving the service delivery which is paramount to their daily lives and well-being,‚” he said.

‚”ICT in rural areas must be developed to ensure that we do not widen the digital divide,‚” said Mr Vilakazi. ‚”Thorough research and innovation with extensive budget allocation is necessary to accompany the adoption of a rural strategic plan for ICT development which takes into account upliftment of the poor through job creation and technology adoption.‚”

In his opening address, Minister Manuel lamented the advances South Africa has let go of over the last decade and questioned why we have allowed ourselves to fall behind.

Although, he acknowledged the positives, such as the 2011 Census and the subsequent accessibility of these statistics, as well as the upcoming ability to track the National Plan via a mobile device. He also called out advances in mobile technology, the potential of the Meraka Institute, e-government and e-cabinet advances, and the commitment to open source that have subsequently been lost.

‚”Techies, why have you allowed this to slip on your watch?‚” he asked. ‚”And what will you help us do to catch up?‚”

Minister Manuel warned that although IT is the great leveller, we need to be careful about what we want to achieve to prevent it becoming the great divider. ‚”Rivers are forming where none existed and the gap between you [the audience] and the majority of South Africans widens increasingly. We need to build bridges that everyone can cross.

‚”And to never allow ourselves to be delayed by silliness again,‚” he said referring to delays in the landing of the Seacom Cable. ‚”The landing of six undersea cable systems allows us to take bandwidth to rural area, to narrow the gap between urban and rural areas, rich and poor, black and white, men and women.‚” But countries such as Kenya and Rwanda have taken our lead on the African continent, he said.

‚”If we look at internet penetration in South Africa, relative to Africa, we used to be way out ahead, but we aren’t there any longer,‚” he said. ‚”I am passionate about the idea of a Silicon Valley in South Africa and am engaging with South Africans based in Silicon Valley about this,‚” he said. ‚”I am a believer in the power of IT and have seen the rate of progress around the world during my time as a minister.

‚”But the rest of the world won’t wait until we are ready, we need to understand this and deal with this.‚”

Indeed, Minister Manuel points out that narrowing the digital divide is mandated in the South African constitution. ‚”The constitution doesn’t give us a choice,‚” he said. ‚”It sets out to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person. And IT will help us to do this. We can’t leave anyone behind.‚”

Minister Manuel challenged GovTech 2013 to tackle IT’s role in the following eight areas:

1. E-government and access to services

2. Education

3. Protection of privacy and information

4. Healthcare

5. Billing

6. General information including the next census and e-voting

7. Dignity and rights, including identity and an address

8. Open source

‚”We have the capability to change if we know that we want to,‚” he concluded. ‚”But there is no margin for error. A capable development state has to be a smart state.‚”

GovTech 2013’s focus was on innovation and the ways in which emerging technologies such as cloud computing, mobile devices and social media can be deployed to improve service delivery across all aspects of government.

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