South Africa climbed two places in the World Economic Forum's (WEF's) latest Global Information Technology Report, from 72nd to 70th out of 144 countries surveyed, scoring strongly for factors such as its regulatory, business and innovation environments, but poorly for other factors, particularly for quality of education.
South Africa was one of only two African countries that made the top half of the WEF's rankings, released on Wednesday, the other being Mauritius (55th). They were followed by Seychelles (79th), Egypt (80th), Cape Verde (81st), Rwanda (88th), Morocco (89th), Kenya (92nd) and Ghana (95th).
Continental powerhouse Nigeria languishes in 113th place in the report's "networked readiness index", which measures the capacity of each country's economy to leverage information and communication technology (ICT) for growth and well-being, based on a range of criteria.
The BRICS economies continue to lag in the WEF's rankings, "suggest[ing] that their rapid economic growth may be in jeopardy unless the right investments are made in ICT, skills and innovation," the report states. Russia led the BRICS grouping in 54th place, followed by China (seven places down at 58th), Brazil (up five places to 60th), India (68th), and South Africa (70th).
South Africa: strengths and weaknesses
South Africa scored most strongly for its political and regulatory environment, ranking 21st overall thanks to a strong showing in sub-measures such as judicial independence, intellectual property protection and the efficiency of the legal system.
The country also scored well for leveraging ICT for its economic impacts, including impacts on new products and services and on new organisational models, ranking 51st overall; for its business and innovation environment (55th); and for its ICT infrastructure and digital content accessibility (59th), including mobile network coverage and availability of internet bandwidth.
However, South Africa ranked poorly (102nd) for its ICT skills, dragged down in particular by the quality of its educational system (140th) and of its maths and science education (143rd).
For affordability, covering mobile and broadband tariffs and internet and telephony competition, the country fared even worse, ranking 104th. And for its social ICT impacts, including impacts on access to basic services and internet access in schools, the country ranked 112th.
When it came to ICT usage, South Africa ranked 33rd for business usage but only 81st for individual usage and a lowly 102nd for government usage.
Bridging 'the new digital divide'
According to the WEF report, despite efforts in the past decade to improve ICT infrastructure in developing countries, there was in effect "a new digital divide in how countries harness ICT to deliver competitiveness and well-being", with national policies in some developing countries "failing to translate ICT investment into tangible benefits in terms of competitiveness, development and employment".
Bruno Lanvin, one of the report's co-editors, said the research showed "how matching investments in ICT with investment in skills and innovation can help economies cross a 'magic threshold', beyond which return on investment increases significantly.
"Individual countries need to identify what separates them from reaching that threshold if they have not reached it yet in order to fulfil long-term growth, competitiveness and innovation targets," Lanvin said.
Robert Pepper, vice-president for global technology policy for Cisco, a sponsor of the report, said the findings demonstrated that economies that failed to implement comprehensive national broadband strategies "risk losing ground in global competitiveness and may fall behind in the delivery of societal benefits from ICTs."
Finland, Singapore and Sweden took the top three places in the WEF's Networked Readiness Index, followed in order by the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the UK, Denmark, the US and Taiwan.