Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams on June 18 said the draft Data and Cloud Policy is not intended to control and direct how data should be used, but aims to serve as an enabler for socioeconomic development.
She was speaking at a colloquium to discuss the draft policy with stakeholders after the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) received more than 17 000 submissions during the extended public comment period. Inputs received represent all stakeholders in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, as well as other community interest groups.
"Digitalisation relies primarily on data, which is why we embarked on the draft Data and Cloud Policy as one of the important enablers of the digital economy. We believe data is a critical asset to set the digital economy in motion."
She noted that concerns had been raised about the proposal to establish a High-Performance Computing Data Processing Centre and State Digital Infrastructure (SDIP) company, as well as about data security threats relating to the centralisation of government data.
Further, stakeholders have raised questions about data security relating to the proposal of creating an open data strategy.
The Minister said these fears were "likely based on the belief that everything will be open, which is not the case".
Similarly, concerns were raised about the issue of critical information infrastructure (CIF), specifically that the definition of such infrastructure is too wide and could be an impediment to investment, as most of the infrastructure could be unnecessarily classified under this definition, prohibiting free flow of information.
Additionally, there were also concerns raised about whether there would be an obligation to keep a copy of the data transferred outside of South African borders domestically.
"The concern is that this could impose an unnecessary cost burden to many multinationals and might, therefore, also discourage investment.
"Lastly, there is a perception that this intervention could also have a negative impact on the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement," she said.
About 90% of the input came from DearSouthAfrica, with participants largely indicating they cannot trust government with their data, without providing details about why they are unhappy with interventions outlined in the policy, she said.
"We do not intend, through this policy, to expropriate anyone’s data or spy on anyone," Ndabeni-Abrahams emphasised.
However, the potential benefits of strengthening the digital economy include that it is largely an area where new jobs and job opportunities can be created, as it does not rely on old manufacturing strategies, but is driven by digital technologies and innovations.
"It is in this context that the [DCDT] has identified [this sector as a] lever to strengthen and sustain South Africa’s evolution towards the digital economy," said Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Key findings of the Harambee Mapping of Digital and ICT Roles and Demand for South Africa survey include that South Africa’s digital economy can unlock 66 000 jobs this year.
"I believe this number can easily be exceeded if, as a country, we focus our efforts and energies on building a digital economy."
There are also inputs supportive of the policy and that provide additional proposals on the strengthening of the policy interventions.
The department appreciates that people and organisations seized the opportunity to engage in this process of participatory democracy, she said.
The digital economy is driven by digitalisation, which is the use of digital technologies and digitised data to impact how work gets done, transform how customers and companies engage and interact, and create new digital revenue streams.
"This draft policy is about reinforcing the acceleration of the rollout of digital infrastructure to reinforce a connected society. It is also about the storage, processing and digitisation of government data to create access for citizens, emerging businesses, government and even the private sector.
"The government data referred to [in the draft policy] must be accessible data in usable form to: innovate, develop digital products and services that improve the way we do business, interact with government and each other, support evidence-based policy-making and, ultimately, enhance service delivery by government."
The policy, further, is about creating a feasible environment for data sharing and interoperability to strengthen cooperation and collaboration among government departments and State-owned enterprises to satisfy the unlimited needs of government and citizens.
The cooperation and collaboration is done through optimising existing capacities and capabilities of other government and governmental institutions to create the required capacity for data collection, storage and processing, she said.
"The draft policy also recognises the need for data security and protection, hence its reinforcement of cybersecurity protection of personal information, including the recommendation for review, where necessary, to support data protection and security and a data-driven economy. It is about recognition of what already exists and implementing necessary enhancements to make it better," said Ndabeni-Abrahams.
"Skills development is a critical intervention to enable economic participation and inclusion, as it not only increases the prospect for employment, but also creates capabilities for entrepreneurship and self-employment. This policy reinforces the issue of skills and capacity development at different levels, including government, to create a digitally transformed society through the implementation of National Digital and Future Skills Strategy published by the DCDT in 2020."
Government recognises the importance and availability of skills that exist outside State institutions, hence the policy proposal about the Data Advisory Council, which will draw on experts from government, the private sector and academia, among others, to contribute towards certain aspects of data governance, including the development of standards relating to the management of data, she said.
"On the issue of data localisation, she said it was important to recognise that "we have a responsibility to protect the security and sovereignty of our Republic and, as such, we unapologetically insist that CIF data, including all ICT systems, data systems, databases, networks, as well as people, buildings, facilities and processes that are fundamental to the effective operation of the Republic, be stored within the borders of South Africa.
"There is no intention to force the private sector to store their data in the high-performance computing data processing centre. Government data will be stored there, and we will strengthen and preserve the confidentiality and security of the stored data in a manner that will encourage other parties to store their data there."