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Setting the table for equity in standardization: Q&A with Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni

By ITU News

During last week’s Global Standards Symposium, we caught up with South Africa’s Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Khumbudzo Phophi Silence Ntshavheni.

The Women in Standardization Expert Group (WISE) at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) held an event to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March. From your perspective as a woman, how has your career been in terms of the challenges that you might face in government?

The challenge facing women in leadership – it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the public sector or as a minister or in business, or as an ordinary woman – is the support system.

The support system for women is very weak.

But also, women supporting each other has been a problem. There is an improvement, but a view that if you empower Khumbudzo as a person, you have empowered everybody – and that’s not true.

What Khumbudzo being a minister at a young age and being female does, is it inspires all the other young people who are female to aspire that it is possible to be there.

Also, the issue around gender equality is not going to be resolved without dealing with access to economic participation by women. When we address that – and you can talk about the quotas that we put – then we can do gender mainstreaming.

The reality is about who sits at the table and who cooks the supper for that table.

If you can cook the supper, you can sit at the table, and you can decide what cutlery you use on that table. For me, that’s what we are here for: to make sure that we create a table for women to sit at. And we cook the supper and the menu that is fit for or preferred by women.

We can have not only our own conversations, but we can say how we support each other as women and make sure that we offer hope to a girl child. Also, we can socialize the boy child to say:

“The role of a woman is not in the kitchen. The role of the woman is any space that she wants to be.”

What message did you bring to the Global Standards Symposium during your keynote address?

If we do not improve access to connectivity for all, we will not be able to extend services – in particular healthcare – that are needed by our communities.

Linked to that is prices of Internet access for all. If we don’t fight to drive down the cost of data, the majority of people will remain excluded in terms of having access to Internet services, which have become the go-to provider for people to access basic services.

Lastly, how do we use emerging technologies such as biometrics to make sure that we improve access to those technologies, but also to basic services. Taking the example of healthcare, if we use artificial intelligence for good, how do we improve that access for people in Africa? The majority who are poor, who sometimes cannot read and write – with biometrics, their data and their records can be kept with them.

What are the key opportunities and challenges for South Africa when it comes to digital transformation?

The challenge has been connectivity. For instance, we’ve got universal Internet penetration, but we do not have Internet access. The majority of our population – which is poor – does not have a connection to their household.

Internet access and penetration is also determined by prices. South Africa’s data prices are very high.

Also, the issue around digitization of records – if you go to our Home Office, which is responsible for records, they are on paper. If you want to find out whose great-granddaughter I am, you will have to do ten years of digging. That will take forever!

We cannot instantly prove the identity of a person, so that’s the work we’re doing.

What are the opportunities? We are now driving connectivity in South Africa aggressively. Our communications regulator, ICASA [the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa], has just put service obligations for connectivity, for the release of spectrum or licensing of spectrum to the mobile telecommunications operators, which will result in the connection of over 18,000 schools, over 5,000 healthcare centers, including hospitals and clinics, and over 8,000 Traditional Authority offices. Why is that important? Because you are driving connectivity to the home.

As a government, over the next 36 months, we are going to connect 21,000 government institutions that were not connected. The whole of government will be connected, and [we will] also provide over 33,000 community Wi-Fi hotspots so that communities can access the Internet.

We’re looking at providing free basic data to households. When I mentioned the gigabytes, the telcos were not happy. We want to see if we can provision 10 gigabytes. When you do that, it’s not just about connectivity by itself – it means that e-commerce will benefit. It means SMMEs (small, medium and micro enterprises) can participate in the economy, they can move their goods and products.

It can also mean poorer households have access to education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minister of Education had to manage school attendance on a shift basis so she could preserve education. Imagine if we were connected. Kids would have been able to go to school virtually, without disrupting their lives.

We also pay a social grant in the country. The president just extended the 350 Rand (USD 23) that we pay to poorer people to alleviate the impact of COVID-19. But they have to queue at the post office to receive it. If we had connectivity, they could get that money on their phones and redeem that coupon anywhere they choose to, whether they pay with it or withdraw the cash.

The opportunity to catapult South Africa into the digital economy is massive. We are looking at the next 36 months to make sure that South Africa is running a predominantly digital economy.

The Global Standards Symposium brings everyone together. Why is this conversation important to everyone?

The conversation is important for everyone because the issues – around health, access to government services, connectivity, data prices – are global, in terms of the poor.

We don’t believe that poverty is a permanent state. It’s a situation that can be changed with correct and timely interventions. Those interventions will need global society and multilateral institutions to invest.

Global standard-setting organizations need to say what applicable standards or frameworks must be there for all of us to be equal. You may not achieve equality, but you may achieve equity, and that needs all of us to participate together.

The eradication of poverty is everybody’s problem, because a poverty-stricken society means an insecure society – not only for South Africa, or for Africa. At the end of the day, it will bite the Western or developed countries later.

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