Unpacking South Africa’s Draft National Data and Cloud Policy: Towards data justice or greater digital inequality?

Some argue that data today is like the immensely valuable (and untapped) asset that was oil in the eighteenth century. Others, that is more like carbon dioxide in that its impacts are societal rather than individual. The South African government, however, apparently feels that it is neither fuel nor CO2, but the driver behind the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). 

In recognition of the rapid digitisation and datafication of many aspects of South African society, the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies recently published a Draft National Data and Cloud Policy for public comment, which is due by 18 May 2021. To stimulate public debate on this technical topic, Research ICT Africa will host a webinar on 6 May 2021, from 13:00 to 14:30, with the aim of unpacking the different elements of the Draft Policy and its potential implications.

The Draft Policy seeks to chart a course for government action on data and cloud computing as a potential economic driver. Its stated purpose is enabling South Africans ‘to realise the socio-economic value of data through the alignment of existing policies, legislation and regulations’ by, among other things, establishing a “conducive and enabling environment for the data ecosystem to thrive”.

The Draft Policy views data as “the infrastructure of the digital economy and therefore the driver behind 4IR and the enabler of macro-economic development” and therefore clearly aims alignment with the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It also highlights the global trend towards strategies and policies “to fully exploit the opportunities presented by data and cloud computing” by, among other things, promoting data as strategic assets.

The Draft Policy references the importance of a raft of intersecting legislation for creating an enabling data intensive and cloud environment for economic development, not least of all cybersecurity and data protection. While it insists that personal data must be dealt with according to the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), it also argues that “data generated in South Africa shall be the property of South Africa, regardless of where the technology company is domiciled”. This proposed policy intervention, which has received the most comment in the press, is in response to the concentration of data under the control of a few powerful global monopolies that operate outside of South Africa.

Overall, the Draft Policy is worth a full read and outlines interventions for policy issues ranging from digital infrastructure to access to data and cloud services, data protection, localisation and cross-border data transfer, cybersecurity, competition, and research (among other things). 

The data ecosystem transcends beyond the technical aspects, it intersects with topics in the energy sector, intellectual property rights and the quest to ameliorate current inequalities and societal exclusions. Thus, this is a policy which requires a multilateral collaboration and inputs from various stakeholders in South Africa and across the continent.

We invite you to join the discussion on the Draft Policy and its potential implications in South Africa and beyond, along with how it compares to other relevant policy developments on the continent, join this interactive, working webinar on 6 May 2021. We will welcome panellists from different stakeholder communities, including the African Union Commission, relevant United Nations agencies, local cloud infrastructure hosts, researchers, and more.