Government data must stay in South Africa, says state technology executive

Data sovereignty is one of the government’s key concerns as it migrates to the cloud

This is according to Luvuyo Keyise, the chief executive of the State Information Technology Agency (Sita), who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on the sidelines of the Huawei Cloud Summit for the Middle East and Africa, held in Dubai.

Sita, then led by Setumo Mohapi, first announced it was working to migrate South African government data to cloud services in 2017. It was later announced that Huawei, as well as US-based technology company IBM, would help with the launch of the first government cloud.

Businesses and state institutions use the cloud as a way of organising, processing and presenting data. Public cloud services allow entities to forego the option of purchasing servers and renting space at local data centres. 

Sita is mandated to render an efficient and value-added information technology service to the public sector.

Data sovereignty — the idea that institutions should have control over their own data — is one reason that has put entities off from joining the cloud. But, Keyise said: “As government and the Sita, it is no longer a discussion about whether we want to move to [the] cloud, we are already there.”

Sita’s cloud infrastructure uses Huawei-manufactured equipment and is run and managed by the technology agency. However, the government has not taken a decision to use only Huawei.

The challenge now is for Sita to migrate the data of a number of government departments to its cloud infrastructure. For that to happen, the public cloud service that the government uses must guard it against interference from geopolitical events affecting China, where Huawei is headquartered, or any of the other countries that offer cloud services.

The government must also be guaranteed that the state’s data “will only be sitting in South Africa-based data centres”,  Keyise said.

Data sovereignty was one of the key subjects of the Huawei Cloud Summit on Thursday. Steven Yi, the president of Huawei in the Middle East and Africa, said the Chinese tech multinational would help all countries in the region to master their own digital transformation.

Huawei, Yi said, “will continue to be the technology partner to help every country to build the foundation for a digital future — including your own cloud infrastructure … and a technology ecosystem so the digital sovereignty can truly return to your country”.

With the rise of cloud computing, many countries have passed various laws to control the storage of data so as to maintain data sovereignty. 

Huawei forecasts that by 2025, 90% of traditional data centres will have closed down. By then, 100% of enterprises will be using the cloud, according to Huawei, which, during the summit, touted itself as “a strategic partner” in the digital transformation of countries in the Middle East and Africa. 

The International Data Corporation (IDC) — represented at the Huawei summit by Ranjit Rajan, the market research firm’s vice-president in the Middle East and Africa — expects that the growth in the digital economy will be four times the rate of global GDP growth. Global GDP is expected to grow at about 4%, whereas spending on digitalisation is expected to grow by 16%.

There has been a significant adoption of public cloud services in recent years, Rajan said. But countries in the Middle East and Africa are lagging. About 45% of organisations in the region, according to IDC research, are still in the discovery and piloting stages of cloud. Only about one in seven organisations have seen the broader implementation of business applications on the cloud.

Spending on cloud services in the Middle East and Africa region is forecast to grow at 28% to $6.2-billion in 2022.

Huawei’s data cloud has more than one billion users. The company’s cloud platform has more than 4 000 local partners and 200 000 ICT tenants in the Middle East and Africa.

One element preventing larger-scale cloud adoption in the region, Rajan said, is concerns over data sovereignty.

 “So what we see is, with organisations in the Middle East and Africa region; a significant share of them are concerned about data sovereignty … So one of the key priorities of organisations is that they would like the cloud provider to have a local, in-country data centre. That’s one of the key priorities in selecting a cloud provider.”

In the past, Huawei has maintained that it respects data sovereignty, noting its intention to meet the data security requirements of each country. 

However, Huawei has also come under scrutiny from various countries in the West, which have flagged the company as a threat to national security because of its connection to China. The company has faced sanctions by the US, the UK and Australia.

But, whereas China has been rejected by a number of Western economies, it has been embraced in Africa. Huawei, for example, has constructed about 70% of 4G networks across the continent.

Data sovereignty for South Africa’s government also means it is able to use whatever cloud service provider it chooses, Keyise noted: “As a sovereign state, we are clear as South Africa that any provider in South Africa will interoperate and integrate to any other solution that is in South Africa, regardless of which country it comes from — be it from Russia, be it from China, be it from anywhere else. Because we are a technology neutral state.”

South Africa’s recently published draft national policy on data and cloud underlines the country’s quest for data sovereignty.

The policy also notes that making South Africa an attractive host to the cloud data centre industry is a priority: “Data centres are a flexible data storage architecture, which delivers an integrated management IT infrastructure, applications and services. In the era of the digital economy, they are an essential resource for economic growth, competitiveness, innovation, job creation and societal development.”

Cloud computing infrastructure investment in South Africa is largely concentrated in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, the policy notes. This infrastructure is mostly foreign-owned.

“Recognising that data ownership, data sovereignty and data protection are critical elements for the digital economy, it is important for government to put in place measures to decentralise investments to ensure distribution of opportunities in this area,” the policy adds. 

The journalist’s trip to Dubai was sponsored by Huawei.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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