Future of Technology in South Africa: Why the government must Act

In the foreword of the recent 2012 report, South Africa’s Basic Education Minister, Mrs. Angie Motshekga says “It is my proud privilege to announce the performance of learners who wrote the Annual National Assessment (ANA) during the week of 18–21 September 2012.”

There is nothing to be proud of, especially as far as the Mathematics results are concerned.

The Minister says she uses ANA as a “strategic tool for monitoring and improving the level and quality of basic education, with a special focus on the foundational skills of Literacy and Numeracy.”

It is Numeracy skills, along with Science and Problem Solving skills, taught at a younger age that have a bearing on how South Africa’s technology sector will perform in the future. Also, these have a direct impact on the social demographic makeup of the technology industry in the future in South Africa.

Whether it is professionals working in corporate South Africa or the technology startup scene. To this effect, the recent community survey (2012) by The Silicon Cape Initiative alludes to the same, i.e. a bulk of their members are male and happen to have less melanin than the majority of the South African population.

Before looking into the future, let’s look at the present education system and why it is important that darker skinned South African’s form a significant part of the technology skills pool and technology startup pool.

Pattern of Consistently Deteriorating Performance

The ANA was written by 24,000 public schools, including special schools and state-funded independent primary schools in South Africa. In these schools, the learners in Grades 1 to 6 and Grade 9 are required to write it resulting in excess of 7 million learners participating. The vast majority of these schools are in South Africa’s townships and attended by black learners.

As such, the ANA is a relatively good determiner of government’s involvement in improving basic education, especially Numeracy skills. On this note too, the government must be commended on conducting such an annual test and making the results, no matter how poor they are, public.

As far as ANA Numeracy test results go, there is an interesting pattern, but first a table of the 2012 Numeracy results:

There is a consistent annual decrease in test results performance as the grade increases, with the worst, despicable and rather embarrassing performance being seen by Grade 9 learners. These are learners in the 14 – 16 year old age group.

There are many theories, in the absence of the relevant data or access to it, as to why this is so.

The first could be that the quality of earlier numeracy education is poor and not sufficient in preparing the learners for more complex numeracy skills in future grades. The other theory could be that of culture, with some boys being considered (especially Grade 9) old enough to herd or take care of the family by earning a living thus not having enough time for studies. Also, teenage pregnancy, amongst the black South African population, is common at this Grade 9 age group. The other reason is a societal one brought about by the scourge of HIV and AIDS leading to many orphans and child-headed households.

Thus, the current basic education and societal issues give us a rather good indication of which type of learners will be in a position to qualify for technology related studies both in high-school and post high school.

Pale and Male

As stated earlier, the bulk of IT professionals and technology startup companies currently in South Africa are pale and male.

This is not just a case as far as the Western Cape is concerned but is prevalent among all provinces in South Africa. The same observation was made by Erik Hersman on his blog when comparing South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya’s technology startup scenes.

Hersman wrote “Second, In Kenya and Nigeria the founders of startups tend to look a lot like a cross section of the country’s population. The tech community in South Africa doesn’t look a lot like the racial makeup of the country. to put it bluntly, I rarely see a black South African tech entrepreneur.”

In other words, the majority of tech entrepreneurs in South Africa are white.

We can debate why the present is such and point fingers to Apartheid with its bantu education etc. but we need to also note that the present government’s Black Economic Empowerment and Affirmative Action initiatives have also done little to re-dress this, in fact they have created a bourgeoisie without even addressing the core issue at the heart of the technology industry’s problem: Basic Education.

The Future is Pale, Unless we Start Them Young

The main issue especially as far as the Technology Startup Scene is concerned and noted by Hersman and another West African Technology commentator and entrepreneur, Victor Asemota, is that it is difficult to develop technology solutions for a community you are not a member of nor live amongst.

A good case study without going into much detail is that of Justin Coetzee (a White South African male) and Go Metro. Go Metro helps MetroRail train commuters get live updates on train times and if there are any delays. This solution would never have come about had Coetzee, an Engineer by training, not been a regular train commuter in Cape Town and seen the problems mostly black people have to deal with regarding trains and delays.

The main point in this case study is that Coetzee had to be part of that community, to provide it with the solution. Now imagine if black learners from a young age are equipped with numeracy, science and problem solving skills, how many societal problems could they solve using technology just like their counterparts in Kenya and Nigeria?

Technology Education starts at Grade 1 with numeracy skills, because a learner who enjoys and excels at the subject from an early age is likely to continue with it further in life. This is where resources by the Basic Education Ministry need to be concentrated, and not on Grade 12 results.

Silicon Cape Exco’s Move

According to Alexandra Fraser, the Silicon Cape’s Chairperson:

The newly elected Silicon Cape Exco is very aware of how ‘pale and male’ the visible tech community is and we know that this needs to change. We need to include and connect with all members of the tech sector – young, old, female, male, black or white – through greater awareness, inclusion and specially designed initiatives. Because transformation is such an important issue, we have created a new portfolio to address this and have two Exco members, Thulani Ngwenya and Catherine Luckhoff heading up this portfolio.

An additional portfolio position has also been created to focus on students and careers. This portfolio is being headed up by Heidi Schneigansz. We aim to work closely with existing organisations teaching young South African’s how to code at a school level, with Schools and Universities to see how we can create a pool of skilled and tech-enthusiastic individuals as well as highlighting career and entrepreneurial opportunities in this space.

Earlier this week we had our first meeting as a new Exco, where we focused on what we as an organisation should be doing and how we can improve on our existing initiatives. We have assigned portfolios and each Exco member is hard at work developing a strategy, goals and objectives for each of their focus areas, so we can deliver tangible results to the community.

This post first appeared on tefomohapi.com and is published with permission.

Post Author: Tefo Mohapi

Entrepreneur | Business Analyst | Technology Journalist Passionate about Technology and Africa. Analytical, Articulate and Meticulous Analyst of Information Systems and Business Processes. For more visit www.tefomohapi.com

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