Donwald Pressly

The Western Cape cabinet and business put their heads together yesterday to determine what the missing ingredients in the economy constraining job-fuelled growth were, and agreed that there was a need to wield a few smart tools and to do it with a measure of speed.

One was to boost economic growth by speedily rolling out internet access, and another was to reduce the number of public and school holidays to ensure that pupils are at school and businesses can operate.

The province has about 500 000 unemployed people – which has risen by 153 000 in four years – but 1.85 million people had jobs, reported Cape Town Partnership chief executive Andrew Boraine. It needed to mop up this unemployment and some radical steps were proposed.

The most radical idea, proposed by Jo-Ann Johnstone, the Economic Development and Tourism Department chief director, was to roll out information technology (IT) infrastructure linking the province’s 8 000 public buildings to every single house in the province.

Her presentation was backed by a video clip that called for the speedy implementation of magical IT networks which would allow a medical procedure to be carried out at a Western Cape hospital by a surgeon in another country or for learning and teaching materials to be easily downloaded at schools. It suggested that the gross domestic product (GDP) could be changed to GNH, or “gross national happiness”.

One could receive government services by downloads from a cellphone. She said pilot projects were being rolled out in Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain and Saldanha. But the aim was to connect all Western Cape citizens to the internet.

The IT operation would be run by a public-private partnership and bids were expected later this year. “We are about to appoint a transaction adviser,” she reported.

There was a big backlog – 75 percent of the province’s population did not have internet access – and South Africa’s broadband speed was 17 times lower and nine times the cost of Estonia’s, apparently the world’s fastest service. The goal was to download information required “at the speed of light”.

Johnstone emphasised that online sales were now some 12 percent of all sales in the UK, which was a pointer to the power of the internet. “Online travel bookings represent a third of all travel bookings worldwide,” she said.

The Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Viola Manuel said a quick fix to low productivity could be to abolish some of the school holidays. A start could be made by reducing the two holidays of 10 and nine days in April 2014. “We need to understand the considerable effect on business.”

Manuel said while Western Cape businesses were hit by regular Eskom hikes, there were new opportunities for business in producing solar power and also in the manufacture of wind turbines. She welcomed ideas about extending broadband connectivity “making it easy to work from home… and commute to where we want to be after peak hour traffic and shop online”.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille said a good education system was the underpinning of the economy and the province had been blessed with the best matriculation results for some years.

However, it had “masked” a problem of schools pushing out poorer performing pupils.

Schools did this so that the academically weak did not get to matric and cause pass rate targets to be missed.