President Cyril Ramaphosa is right when he says that to address the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, South Africa will need to leapfrog into the 4th industrial revolution, the path to which lies in acquiring cutting-edge 5G technology.
The dreams Ramaphosa articulated in his State of the Nation Address may have sounded lofty, but they emanate from a sound realisation that the future is hurtling towards us whether we are ready or not, and either we harness the latest technology and leapfrog into this brave new world, or quite simply we will be left behind. That is why our President is putting so much emphasis on teaching our children robotics, data analytics, and digital content.
I was with Ramaphosa when he visited Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s headquarters in Hangzhou in October last year, and it certainly was a Damascus moment to see first-hand what the future holds in terms of smart cities and digital solutions. China has harnessed its technology to fight crime in big cities, with technology being able to monitor and map out where criminality takes place and track where the criminals are hiding. It is mesmerising to see just how effective such a high-tech approach to fighting crime can be. It is no wonder that Ramaphosa is sold on the idea of China’s technology giant Huawei assisting South Africa to acquire 5G technology in order to harness the potential that such sophisticated technology can bring.
To understand the kind of world we are hurtling towards is to appreciate just how urgently we need to connect our rural areas with our cities, and close the gap that fibre band has been unable to. With 5G technology, the high frequency bandwidth will be able to bridge such gaps by connecting rural communities in ways that previous mobile technology couldn’t. The pundits may claim that Ramaphosa’s goals are unrealistic, but actually they are only as unrealistic as our imagination and determination allows them to be.
Dell has already ranked South Africa among the top tier countries leading the digital change, so why shouldn’t we believe in our own potential? Just consider the fact that 20 years ago parts of downtown Beijing were considered undeveloped backwaters, and its residents still rode to work on bicycles. Today Beijing and Shanghai are world class cities that outstrip New York any day.
How did China achieve its modernity miracle? It is all in their long-term planning and belief in their own capabilities to achieve their objectives. China has steamed ahead and can now boast about Huawei leading the world in 5G technology when no other US company has comparable wireless equipment. Huawei was always part of China’s industrial policy strategy, and now China is pouring money into their Artificial Intelligence development plan, as well as computing, robotics and aerospace.
China’s surge in technological advancement is so impressive and moving at such lightning speed that President Donald Trump felt compelled to declare war on Huawei as America was getting left behind in the race to technological supremacy. First he declared a national emergency and banned sales and the use of Huawei’s telecommunications equipment due to ‘unacceptable risks.’ Then he lobbied US allies to do the same, but not even his best friends in Britain were having any of it. Despite all of Trump’s hysteria, Huawei is helping all of the UK’s top carriers to build 5G networks. If we play our cards right this is what Huawei will be doing for South Africa as well.
As Ramaphosa said in his address this week at the Inaugural Digital Economy Summit in Johannesburg, the US has been unable to imagine a better future given what 5G can offer. According to Ramaphosa, the US is jealous that Huawei has outstripped them and therefore they are determined to punish it and use it as a pawn in the fight with China.
But in the long term, US pressure on China will only make it stronger as it will strive to become independent. Instead of additional tariffs slowing China down, it will stimulate new innovation and boost scientific research at a rate never yet seen before.
South Africa will not be cowed into submission by the US to shun Chinese technology, as we are well aware that it is only Huawei that is going to be able to lead us to 5G. Once we harness this technology, Ramaphosa’s vision is that we will have a Digital Compact with social justice at its heart. There is no illusion that 5G will be expensive to roll out and will not be ready for consumer use until next year. But South Africa must rethink its spending priorities as super fast and reliable internet connection that 5G will bring, along with self-driving cars, virtual reality, delivery drones and smart cities, is a brave new world that our country cannot afford to opt out of.
* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor