“In the last 25 years, we have moved our country from an era dominated by a monopoly fixed line network that catered for a few, where the central commodity was voice. We have now entered a modern, diverse, Fourth Industrial Revolution era that is characterised by a plurality of players - and where data is the new commodity.” Stella Ndabeni Abrahams, Former Minister of Communications
When the former Minister of Communication, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said these words at the Digital Economic Summit in 2012 she could not have envisage the urgency for us to fast track efforts to responsibly, intentionally and equitably speed up the conversation of the digital economy as a result of the current Covid-19 pandemic that has gripped us the world over.
With people being more homebound and all sectors migrating very quickly to online platforms, the digital economy fast becoming a key determinant and factor to stimulating economic growth and broader participation. A recent study by the World Economy Forum and Accenture estimates that investment in digital transformation of government and industry in South Africa would result in an economy wide value of R5 trillion. More specifically, this economic value addition would result in roughly 4 million new jobs.
It is with the above backdrop and observation that the Africa China internet Cooperation Forum was held last week. The Forum sat at a time in our own country when there are many advancements regarding the acceleration of the digital economy, these advancements include but are not limited to; the building of an undersea cable - Simba, which will link up with beachheads in several countries on the continent’s eastern, western and Mediterranean coasts.
We also have the development of the 14th undersea cable, Equiano from Portugal down the west coast of the continent to Cape Town, with multiple landing points at countries along the coast. Further, is our proximity to the Submarine Cable System, which is the first submarine system to connect Mauritius to Rodrigues, with onward connectivity to South Africa and India to the rest of the world. There are also major commitments to invest in cloud computing technology and use South Africa as a catalyst to speed up the connection of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and ultimately Africa.
With the above in mind, we need to strengthen our efforts to collaborate and cooperate on initiatives that seek to broaden our interests and scope in the digital economy; the China-Africa Internet Cooperation Forum provides the opportunity to exploit, learn and exchange technology, know-how and skills for the optimum utilisation of the opportunities that will come with this new era.
One can only hope that the Presidential Commission on the 4IR which is mandated to advise government on policies, develop a framework for implementation of a multi-sectoral 4IR strategy; coordinate, monitor and evaluate multi-sectoral initiatives that will position South Africa as a globally competitive player in 4IR,is taking note and gearing itself to participate fully in Forums like the Africa China Internet Cooperation Forum.
The Forum was filled with progressive and robust discussions and resolved on six strategic focus areas in order to achieve the most beneficial and sustainable cooperation. The focus areas where;
First, strengthening the digital infrastructure to unclog the information artery of economic and social development.
China will share its digital technologies with Africa to promote digital infrastructure connectivity. Chinese enterprises will be encouraged to work with their African partners to participate in digital infrastructure projects including fiber optic backbone networks, cross-border connectivity and new-generation mobile communication networks. We will also help expand Internet access in Africa's remote areas to connect the last mile of the information network.
Second, growing the digital economy to promote integrated development of digital technologies and the real economy.
China will support Africa in raising the level of digitization in the public and corporate sectors and promoting industrialization by applying new technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and mobile payment. China will strengthen e-commerce cooperation with Africa to bring more quality African products into the Chinese market, and leverage cross-border e-commerce to speed up the integration of Africa's information and industrial chains.
Third, promoting digital education to overcome the "talent bottleneck" that constrains digital innovation. China will implement the "Talented Young Scientist Program", the "Cirrus Innovative Talent Exchange Program" and other initiatives to step up China-Africa cooperation on distance education and provide further support for Africa in training young talents in digital-related fields. We will also encourage Chinese enterprises to enhance exchanges and cooperation with Africa's digital innovation professionals.
Fourth, promoting digital inclusiveness to benefit the wider African public. China will support African countries in applying digital technologies to transportation, medical care, finance and other livelihood areas, building "smart cities", and leveraging digital technologies to strengthen state governance and control the pandemic. Chinese enterprises will be encouraged to participate in the development of Africa's public service platforms such as e-government networks and e-payment and digital currency services.
Fifth, jointly upholding digital security and enhancing digital governance capacity. China welcomes African countries' participation in the Initiative on Jointly Building a Community With a Shared Future in Cyberspace and the Global Initiative on Data Security. We stand ready to work with the African side to strengthen dialogue and communication in such areas as cybersecurity emergency response and Internet-related legislation, shape an open, fair and non-discriminatory environment for digital development, and explore and formulate global rules on digital governance.
Sixth, building cooperation platforms to promote digital progress through exchanges. China stands ready to explore with Africa the establishment of a high-level dialogue platform on China-Africa digital cooperation, and strengthen communication and exchanges with African governments and organizations such as Smart Africa. China will continue to host activities such as the "China Innovation Tour for African Young Scientists" and support the building of the China-Africa Innovation Cooperation Center.
This projected enormous value to society and government, as well as the projected employment stands to contribute significantly to our economic growth and tackling the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Using the latest digital technologies and platforms, South Africa also stands to transform the outlook of our economy by ensuring that government services, trade, banking and infrastructure delivery are carried out in a smart and efficient manner. I wish to announce that China is ready to work with Africa to formulate and implement a China-Africa Partnership Plan on Digital Innovation.
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, the Vice Chancellor of UJ, penned an opinion piece highlighting the importance of synchronising our national response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He said, and I quote: “For us to succeed in this task of developing a national strategy on the 4IR, we will need to synchronise all activities that are happening in South Africa around the 4IR. For example, it will be premature for a government department to come up with its own strategy on the 4IR without the benefit of the recommendations of the PC4IR. Equally, it will be premature for industry to develop its own strategy on the 4IR without coordinating with the work of the PC4IR.
In early September, the Internet Society of China and Chinese e-commerce companies will jointly hold an "African Products Online Promoting Season". In the China-Africa BDS Cooperation Forum to be held later this year, the two sides will explore the use of satellites, remote sensing and other high-end information technologies to support Africa's efforts in environmental protection, agriculture and disaster surveillance. This will also be bolstered by the initiative to work with Africa to make plans for the digital cooperation initiatives to be launched in the next three years, which will be included in the outcome document of the next FOCAC meeting.
An example of cooperation and collaboration working for the greater good can be found in the completion of Africa's first 5G standalone commercial network, undertaken jointly by Chinese and South African companies. Another example is the official launch of Senegal's National Data Center, supported by Chinese funding and technologies. One of the critical platforms which has made the advent of these initiatives possible is the Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP) which has helped African products reach Chinese consumers. Huawei's "Seeds for the Future" program and Alibaba's "Africa's Business Heroes Competition" have also contributed to the training of young African professionals in the Internet industry.
“In our world today, the rapid advances of new-generation digital technologies have transformed the means of social production, created new possibilities in our life, and opened up new areas of state governance.”- Deng Li, Assistant Foreign Minister of China