/ 13 July 2023

Technology in SA – who will ignite the flame of transformation?

Digital Transformation
It is time for government departments to embrace digital transformation and benefit from the limitless opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution brings

In President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision for our nation, a digital future awaits — a future where digital citizenship thrives, our workforce is empowered through skill development, and our youth flourishes amidst the transformative rewards of an ever-evolving world. 

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has bestowed upon us remarkable technological advancements, reshaping our lives, work dynamics and social interactions. This global phenomenon of digital transformation has left an indelible mark on all sectors. However, the unfortunate truth is that government departments in South Africa are falling significantly short in their readiness, revealing a stark lack of preparedness. 

This wake-up call aims to illuminate the multitude of shortcomings and challenges faced by these departments as they grapple to embrace the 4IR. By presenting concrete empirical examples, it emphasises the urgency for change to surmount these obstacles.

One glaring example of government departments’ inadequate 4IR readiness is found within the department of public service and administration. Despite the existence of digital platforms and automation technologies, job seekers are still required to physically submit their CVs to the department. 

This antiquated practice not only causes inconvenience and delays, but it also fails to harness the potential of digital systems to streamline and expedite the recruitment process. The persistence of these manual systems raises concerns about the department’s adaptability and effective use of technology. 

Another instance of outdated processes can be seen in the use of the Z83 form, which applicants are obliged to complete. Initially designed to standardise job applications, this form could undergo a modern transformation through automation. By introducing an online application system where candidates can digitally fill in their information, the department can eliminate the need for physical paperwork and significantly enhance the application experience. Other countries have successfully implemented similar automated systems, leading to increased efficiency and improved applicant satisfaction.

Technical challenges and inefficiencies further impede government departments’ progress in embracing the 4IR. Although the South African government introduced online portals for job applications, frequent technical issues undermine their effectiveness. Job seekers often encounter errors, slow response times and system crashes, hampering their ability to submit applications promptly. 

These challenges not only frustrate applicants but also erode trust and confidence in the digital systems provided by government departments. Furthermore, technical inefficiencies extend beyond job application portals. 

Many government departments still rely on outdated software and equipment, resulting in operational bottlenecks and reduced productivity. For example, outdated laptops and limited internet connectivity contribute to delayed response times, hinder communication and impede workflow. These issues are particularly detrimental in departments responsible for critical services like healthcare, where efficient information systems and digital infrastructure are vital for effective service delivery.

Resistance to change within government departments poses a significant obstacle to achieving readiness for the 4IR. Individuals within these departments, leveraging their extensive tenure in public service, often use their experience as justification for their reluctance to embrace new technologies and processes. While experience holds value, it should not impede progress or hinder the adoption of innovative solutions. 

Without a willingness to adapt and evolve, government departments run the risk of falling further behind and failing to harness the benefits that the 4IR offers. Interestingly, a growing number of young professionals are now joining the public service, only to become frustrated by the lack of digital technology use among long-standing personnel. 

This younger generation wholeheartedly embraces digital technologies, making it challenging for them to collaborate with individuals unprepared for the transformative changes brought by the 4IR. It is crucial for senior employees, who have been in the workforce for years, to alter their attitudes and embrace the opportunities presented by the 4IR.

Outdated technology and infrastructure within government departments also present a critical impediment to 4IR readiness. Insufficient investment in modern hardware, software, and digital infrastructure not only hampers efficiency but also poses security risks. Outdated cybersecurity measures and inadequate software updates make government systems vulnerable to cyberattacks and data breaches, compromising sensitive information and eroding public trust. 

Additionally, the burden of load-shedding exacerbates the challenges faced by government departments. Power outages disrupt workflow, jeopardise data integrity and hinder the effective use of technology. This highlights the need for robust backup systems, uninterrupted power supply solutions and proactive measures to mitigate the impact of load-shedding on critical government operations.

Amid these shortcomings, there are commendable examples of government departments making strides in embracing the 4IR. 

The South African Revenue Service (SARS) stands out as a shining beacon of success. SARS has placed digital transformation at the forefront of its agenda and implemented advanced technological solutions to improve service delivery. For instance, they have developed user-friendly online portals for tax filing, enabling taxpayers to conveniently submit their returns and access relevant information. By investing in modernisation, SARS has streamlined processes, enhanced transparency, and significantly reduced tax-related fraud and non-compliance.

In conclusion, the readiness of government departments for the 4IR is an urgent matter that demands immediate attention. The examples mentioned here shed light on the significant gaps and challenges faced by these departments. It is imperative that the government takes decisive action to modernise processes, update technology and foster a culture that embraces change. 

By doing so, we can ensure that our government departments are equipped to meet the demands of the 4IR, enhance service delivery and, ultimately, drive the progress and prosperity of our nation. It is time to ignite the flame of transformation, empowering our government departments to step boldly into the digital era and embrace the limitless opportunities that the 4IR brings.

Andile Sokani, a South African sociologist, focuses on public health’s social and behavioural aspects and the political economy of gender equity and empowerment.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.