Government could solve two of the biggest long-term problems facing South Africa today – youth unemployment and lack of basic service delivery – if they used one to address the other.
We are all familiar with the lack of basic services, safety and security for our people and communities. The escalating service delivery protests that take place around the country tell us that our institutions have lost control and purpose, and our communities have lost confidence in them.
All too often the institutions responsible for service delivery either can’t fulfil their mandates or they respond slowly and inefficiently, citing lack of budget and resources. Yet we know what can be done when essential services are delivered digitally, as demonstrated by SARS when its branches were temporarily closed during the second Covid wave. They were able to continue servicing customers by converting 3,1 million taxpayers to an automated assessment system. More than 300,000 taxpayers who previously filed at a SARS branch migrated to their digital platforms over one month: 90% of them received their assessments in under 5 seconds and 91% of these had their refunds paid within 72 hours.
Clearly, technical upskilling could solve many service delivery problems. It’s hardly surprising that there is a potential demand of more than 66,000 digital jobs according to research conducted by Harambee Youth Accelerator.
At the same time, 75% of our youth are unemployed as reported by Stats SA in June 2021. And not just unemployed – they are not engaged in education or training either. How can a country prosper unless its youth participate in its economy?
Our best opportunity to overcome our service delivery challenges is to equip our unemployed youth with the digital skills that government and municipal departments need to practically solve some of the many service delivery shortfalls experienced by communities across the country. Young people are innately digital-savvy and capable of making a meaningful difference to the country. They represent the best response we have to transform and modernise the way we prioritise and deliver basic services.
We need to recognise their creativity and the fact that their understanding of technology is way beyond that of previous generations. Harnessing their hunger for work, and work they’re good at, will give us the opportunity to re-imagine the delivery of basic services and bring to life pragmatic solutions.
There is a compelling case for government to rethink its systems and services, to digitise its processes and accelerate the race towards a globally growing digital economy. Covid demonstrated just how ill-prepared our government was to support households and distressed businesses in paying out emergency economic relief measures. There is a lesson to be learnt from China, which built on the vast network of Ant Financials (an Alibaba affiliate company) to support millions of SMEs through the lockdowns.
The digital economy accounted for one third of China’s total GDP last year, a contribution of two thirds to total economic growth. According to a document on the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies’ website, the growth of South Africa’s digital economy is approximately R59 billion, or 2% of our GDP, but there’s no reason for us not to achieve the same levels as China especially if we focus digitalisation where it belongs – with our youth.
In Q3 of 2019, our government, through the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic), committed to building digital hubs to help young people gain digital skills and give them access to e-learning, all with the aim of encouraging entrepreneurship. This is exactly the sort of initiative required.
But there is another aspect to this. The World Economic Forum predicts that we will need to reskill more than 1 billion existing workers by 2030 as jobs are impacted by the 4th industrial revolution. They estimate that 42% of the core skills we currently have will need to change in the next few years.
At Mindworx, our concern is that unless attention is paid to existing workers, many of them will become irrelevant and be excluded. Their digital literacy urgently needs reskilling. There are enough jobs for them and for the currently unemployed youth. We imagine an ideal world where the two cohorts work side by side to enable South Africa to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital technologies.
A public sector workforce retrained in digital skills and welcoming young, new recruits, would be able to transform its processes and platforms to serve its citizens well. This is surely the best way to demonstrate ubuntu and the principles of Batho Pele we so desperately seek in our engagement with government.
There’s just one question: if not now, then when?
By Jonah Naidoo, CEO of Mindworx Consulting