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Lockdown has exposed tech gulf between SA and rest of the world, say experts

Before the pandemic, President Cyril Ramaphosa had big plans for the fourth industrial revolution in the country, improving people's lives through technology. But the lockdown has exposed just how far behind South Africa is compared with other countries.

Picture: 123rf.com

JOHANNESBURG - It’s been six months since the start of lockdown and the nation is taking stock, which includes education experts who’re raising concerns about the ability of the system to withstand shocks like this one.

Before the pandemic, President Cyril Ramaphosa had big plans for the fourth industrial revolution in the country, improving people's lives through technology.

But the lockdown has exposed just how far behind South Africa is compared with other countries.

When lockdown hit, the big plan was to take learning online - there were zero-rated apps and a full suite of TV and radio programmes for learners to keep up, but the realities of South Africa were a major barrier.

Educational specialist Professor Mary Metcalfe said that the pandemic had been a real wake-up call.

“This is something that remains an aspiration, not a reality. Very few people have access to a computer at home and wi-fi they can afford and that is reliable.”

When it comes to higher education, Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa shared the same concern but said that there was hope through partnerships with possible funders.

“The shift to online emergency learning went well at some universities, but simply could not be implemented at other institutions. That's an issue we have to take up immediately.”

Meanwhile, experts are hoping that the sector will learn from the mistakes made during the lockdown and use the coming months to correct and improve.

Meanwhile, economist Iraj Abedian said that the six months had hammered the country's economy and little had been done to protect it.

“Every day that we do not come up with a credible turnaround strategy, we see a few thousand more jobs lost and small businesses going under.”

On the business front, managing director at World Wide Worx, Arthur Goldstuck, said that many companies used this time to transform to survive in an ever-changing digital world.

“What the crisis has shown us is how dramatic the digital divide is and the impact it has on the population and economy.”

WORKPLACE REVOLUTION

Tech experts said that there had been a major upside to the nation’s lengthy lockdown – it’s driven businesses to reimagine the world of work.

The move forced businesses that could to rethink how staff work, expediting a workplace revolution.

Who would have thought that 2020 would be the year that Parliament, court cases and even funerals would go digital, happening almost entirely online and live-streamed to thousands of people's homes?

Is this part of a new normal or is South Africa not yet ready to fully embrace the digital space?

Goldstuck said that a recent study showed that around 40% of South African enterprises wanted their staff to carry on working remotely even after the danger posed by the pandemic had passed.

"It's a real antiquated idea that being at your screen is equivalent of being productive."

Stuff magazine publisher, Toby Shapshak said that working in the cloud was becoming common practice and those businesses finding it difficult to adapt would fall behind in the long run.

"All of these changes would have happened slowly anyway. It's just become the norm very quickly."

Although there is no reliable measurement for employee productivity during the lockdown, experts estimate that staff are happier not having to contend with traffic commutes and inflexible working hours and happy staff mean better results.

Reflecting on the economic impact of the lockdown, Business Leadership South Africa CEO Busisiwe Mavuso said that some of the immediate restrictions imposed on businesses were too harsh and could have been avoided.

"After we moved into levels 4 and 3, we really could have done better in ensuring that lockdown was not as stringent as it was - there were products that you could not buy."

Meanwhile, Universities South Africa's CEO, Ahmed Bawa, said that great lessons had been learnt in the education sector and universities were now trying to embrace more online courses to make learning more remotely accessible.

"The universities have been experimenting with this for a while already, it's not something completely new but this is an opportunity now to put in place a system, sector-wide, that will move us in the right direction."

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