Digital governance for African transformation
Too often digital transformation in Africa is narrowly understood as increasing the use of digital products and services by governments, companies, consumers and nonprofit organisations. In Africa it needs to be broader than that. African societies need to tap into new technologies to also overcome socio-economic divides, improve the delivery of public services, enhance public engagement in policy processes and promote inclusive economic development.
Yet this cannot happen organically. According to the African Union Commission. (2020). Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030): “Governments have a responsibility to create an enabling environment with policies and regulations that promote digital transformation.” This inherently requires the same policy makers to develop dynamic capabilities within their governments to improve policy and the regulatory framework.
Governing a digital society
Emerging digital trends are challenging and reshaping traditional policy approaches. The dominance of big tech in data markets and the associated risks to data integrity, taxation and the participation of small and medium enterprises in data markets are growing public policy concerns.
All over the world, policy makers seem to continuously define the ‘rules of the digital game’. These decisions, however, will have long-lasting implications on the distribution power in the digital economy between governments, the private sector and citizens.
This requires a re-evaluation of how our societies are organised, the norms that should underpin policies and regulations and how to govern digital transformation in ways that yield development outcomes and protect the citizens of these societies.
Digital transformation in a time of crisis
In the current era of polycrisis, there is a pressing need to strengthen the governance architecture of digital change. We need to close divides between urban and rural areas as well as advanced industrial economies and developing nations. Digital inclusion is pivotal to transformation.
Digital governance in Africa must be seen as an indispensable component of anticipatory governance, particularly in a time of extreme social disruptions like the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine and most recently the conflict in the Middle East.
These challenges, which affect the world and particularly Africa, can be addressed by harnessing digital technologies to promote development, enhance supply chain resilience and achieve inclusive outcomes.
An interdisciplinary response
Digital governance requires interdisciplinary conversations that cut across government, private sector and civil society aimed at improving public actor responses to these challenges and prepare for uncertain futures. It is about creating shared values to develop and direct new digital tools at solving complex socio-economic challenges rather than introducing new layers of complexity and inequality.
To facilitate these conversations, The Wits School of Governance created The Tayarisha Research Group for Digital Governance. Meaning ‘preparing’ in kiSwahili, Tayarisha is an academic platform for research, training, policy dialogues and development related to digital transformation. The centre focuses on the interplay between digitalisation, development, public policy, ethics and civic engagement.
Tayarisha, The Digital Afrikan and The Mail & Guardian
Over the next few weeks, Tayarisha, The Digital Afrikan (a content portal on all things digital in Africa) and the Mail & Guardian will run a series of research and data driven articles to bring many of the issues mentioned here to the fore.
Our view is that building digital infrastructure, investing in human capital, accelerating the adoption of digital tools in the public sector and improving regulatory institutions will help to improve the broader ecosystem of tech entrepreneurship in new digital economies. Communities will be empowered to participate more effectively in public policy engagements.
To do this, we must ensure digital literacy among all digital Africans. From policy makers and innovators to investors and guardians of ethics and citizens’ digital rights. Together, we must develop capabilities to steer digital transformation to align with shared African societal values. We must prepare.
Mzukisi Qobo is Visiting Professor at the Wits School of Governance and co-founder of the Tayarisha Research Group on Digital Governance; Karuri-Sebina is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Tayarisha Research Group on Digital Governance at the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. https://www.wits.ac.za/tayarisha/
Professor Geci Karuri-Sebina is a scholar-practitioner working in the intersection between people, place and technological change. She is coordinating the establishment of the Tayarisha African Centre of Excellence in Digital Governance, and hosting the African Civic Tech Innovation Network at the Wits School of Governance. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, a Principal at the School of International Futures, and a global faculty member with Singularity University on the future of cities and governance.