The Standing Committee on the Premier and Constitutional Matters of the Western Cape Provincial Parliament convened virtually to be apprised of the status of cyber security and broadband rollout in the province.
The Committee heard that the scope of the Western Cape government’s network included both corporate and administration sites. These included schools, libraries and hospitals, particularly the rural library project is pertinent.
Members asked about the online applications for schools, and wanted to know whether the Department had worked closely with the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) to ensure that the application process became a much smoother one.
Members also commented that it did not help schools to be fully resourced in terms of facilities and equipment when they had no access to optimal Wi-Fi connections.
The Standing Committee resolved to undertake an oversight visit to a tertiary hospital, where Members could possibly observe how medical experts assisted rural-based and far-flung medical practitioners via the internet with medical advice. The proposed oversight visit had come about due to observations made by Members about how the province’s network enabled real-time expert medical advice being dispatched to rural-based hospitals. Members also proposed visiting the Tech Centre of the Department of the Premier.
The Committee expressed its gratitude to the Departmental officials for the in-depth analysis they had provided, of an otherwise highly technical subject matter.
The Chairperson opened the virtual meeting, welcoming everyone in attendance. She handed over to the Department of the Premier for its presentation.
Briefing by the Department of the Premier on the Cyber-Security and Broadband Programmes
The Director-General (DG) of the Western Cape Provincial Government, Dr Harry Malila, accompanied by Mr Hilton Arendse, Head of Cyber-Security, and other Department of the Premier officials, briefed the Standing Committee on the broadband and cyber-security plan of the Western Cape Government.
The presentation was predominantly educational about the technical aspects of broadband technology and the requisite cyber-security. It also scoped an extensive update on the Broadband 1.0 Programme and a status update about the sites that have been or are to be connected to broadband. Such sites included corporate sites, health facilities, schools, libraries and Cape Access centres – all within the Western Cape’s network.
See presentation document for more details
Ms D Baartman (DA) referred to the top ten users of the free broadband roll-out, of which Bloekombos High School had been featured. The Member wanted to ascertain whether these had been learners or teachers. She would be interested to know what Bloekombos had done right since so many other schools had failed to attract real interest in their computer laboratories.
Mr P Marias (FF+) sarcastically noted that everything the departmental officials had said seemed impressive since he is not a ‘guru’. "Is it always the truth – the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” he quipped. Members simply had to accept what they had been told by the officials, as Members simply had no choice but to trust what they had been briefed on.
Given his lack of knowledge, he would not engage in the technicalities of what Members had been briefed on. He asked whether the Department had considered broadband coverage for areas such as Laingsburg and Beaufort West. During an oversight visit to these areas, schools had complained about having been given computers, yet no Wi-Fi coverage had been provided.
He also referred to the provincial online portals and systems where people registered for various government programmes and activities, such as the census. Mr Marais wanted to ascertain how this portal had helped the old and poor people to fill in the forms.
Mr Marais also wanted to establish whether the system allowed for regional hospitals to contact academic hospitals (Groote Schuur, Tygerberg) in Cape Town in real-time for expert medical advice.
At times ambulances had to cover vast distances to get to Cape Town.
The Chairperson's question also pertained to the online applications for schools, and wanted to know whether the Department had worked closely with the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) to ensure that the application process became a much smoother one.
Parents, she added, had complained that they had struggled with the registration process. Of the 1 302 sites that the Department administered, how many of these had been updated, and how evenly had the technical challenges been spread?
She also wanted to know the procedures that rural-based government entities had to follow when they experienced technical difficulties.
Would these entities contact the head office in Cape Town first, or would they be able to act independently to have it fixed?
Responses by the Department of the Premier
Director-General Malila replied that post the oversight visit which Mr Marias had referred t,o the Department had ensured that Laingsburg High School and Akasia Primary School had been provided with three gigabytes (3GB) of Wi-Fi data.
He indicated that the Department had fully supported and resourced the roll-out of smart schools, and that these rural schools had now been declared no-fee schools as well.
He invited Mr Marais to conduct a follow-up visit to see for himself the advances that have been made thus far.
The DG further added that the wider community of Beaufort West and Laingsburg also benefited from free Wi-Fi hotspots in various areas within the district.
He conceded that it remained a struggle to roll out Wi-Fi to far-flung areas such as Merweville. However, the Department remained resolute to ensure that each and every resident of the province, no matter how far-flung, should have access to quality Wi-Fi connections.
On the question, about the online system, and whether it had facilitated much wider and easier access to the national census currently underway, DG Malila replied that his office had been tapped by the Premier, to lead interactions with Statistics South Africa (StatsSA).
The Western Cape Provincial Government, whilst not operationally involved, had been able to strengthen communications and public awareness about the census in the Western Cape.
Members also heard that, since the province's intervention, there had been a marked uptick in census participation from the Western Cape populous.
Members were also reminded that all government departments had been zero-rated. This meant that one did not require data or access to Wi-Fi, to access government portals.
The DG concluded that access to broadband had allowed exactly for the process mentioned by Mr Marais. Broadband had indeed enabled rural-based medical practitioners to seek expert medical advice from academic hospitals like Groote Schuur and Tygerberg.
Mr Arendse added that whilst Bloekombos Secondary had been placed on the list. High Wi-Fi consumption had been driven by the adjacent dens communities that surrounded the school. In many instances, surrounding communities would be able to access and benefit from the free Wi-Fi services.
Mr Mark Carolissen, Technology Management, Department of the Premier, said the Department had worked closely with the Western Cape Education Department towards streamlining the online school application process.
Should any Western Cape provincial government website experience any technical difficulties or downtime, their first port of call would be the support call centre through which troubleshooting would occur. Sometimes these outages occurred late at night. To mitigate the rate, the Department had instituted relevant risk-mitigating processes. He decried the impact that loadshedding and unplanned blackouts had on these websites.
On the question about customer or end-user feedback, the Committee heard that the Department conducted continuous visits to sites. During these outreach visits, departmental officials engaged with users. The team also regularly monitored consumption and network downtime.
Ms Baartman wanted to know whether the Department had worked in close cooperation with the Year Beyond and IBM after school programme.
Ms Baartman said that it did not help schools to be fully resourced in terms of facilities and equipment when they had no access to optimal Wi-Fi connections.
On the Department’s Tech Centre, Ms Baartman stated that it would be insightful to undertake an oversight visit to that facility.
Mr Marais said that he was particularly impressed with the competence, in-depth explanations and professionalism with which the officials had engaged with Members. The Member added that forthrightness lacked in other departments.
He was also encouraged by the roll-out of broadband to rural communities.
Mr Marais further added that the Department seemed to be on the right track. He congratulated the Department, once again, for their very good work.
The Chairperson recalled a complaint that had been lodged by a clinic in Dorp Street, about connectivity challenges of the Wi-Fi not yet being up and running.
The Chairperson noted that the facilities manager at the clinic had to make her contact number available to the public. Ostensibly, this number now served as the contact number for the clinic.
The Chairperson wanted to ascertain whether the Department had received the complaint and attended to it.
The Chairperson also wanted to know whether the Department had liaised with the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) to run information sessions with counsellors on cyber-security matters.
The DG replied that the Department would present the report to Cabinet for discussion, after which the report would certainly be discussed at the Municipal Managers Forum (MMF). The chairperson of the SALGA in the Western Cape also attended MMF meetings.
Further to this, the DG also committed the Department to speedily resolve the clinic’s Wi-Fi connectivity issues.
The DG further thanked Mr Marais for the comments. In the same vein, he recalled Ms Baartman's last observations about the Tech Centre.
The DG added that an oversight visit to Tygerberg or Groote Schuur could certainly be arranged for Members so that Members could see in real-time how medical specialists assisted doctors at regional hospitals.
On Year Beyond, the DG stated that the Department worked hand-in-hand with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sports and the WCED on the very issues that Ms Baartman had raised.
In relation to smart public facilities being manned by qualified technical professionals, the DG said that it is impossible at the moment.
The DG said the Department had enabled an assistance mechanism for these smart centres, should they require technical support.
Mr Arendse said that he was not familiar with the complaint raised by the Chairperson.
He added that since the Director-General had made a commitment, it would be sorted out within the next week or so; the officials will act upon it speedily.
Mr Marais said that it seemed that Eskom remained one of the biggest risk factors for the Department. In light of this, he wanted to know whether the Department had any generators that kept school- and hospital-library portals online during blackouts.
Ms Baartman noted that it appeared that the officials had misunderstood her question. She said that she had been well-acquainted with how the Department dealt with network and connectivity issues, and recalled that during a previous oversight she actually had an opportunity to observe how officials handled such requests.
She said that her question related to say for instance the free programmes offered by the Departments of Cultural Affairs and Environmental Affairs, respectively. She further made the example of a learner, for instance, having received Afrikaans homework: what would happen should that learner require assistance on the work itself?
Mr Arendse replied that Mr Marais had raised a critical question, and he conceded that Eskom’s woes posed a significant threat to the Department.
The Department did have access to an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) that sustained the system until the generator kicked in. With the continued and intermittent power outages, the batteries are being affected in that they do not get charged properly. Mr Arendse likened it to cell phone towers in the various communities that would sometimes also give technical problems, due to not being fully charged after continuous power outages.
As an additional precaution and mitigating factor, the Department also stored data in its cloud, especially at the Liquid Data Centre.
During a recent visit by the Department to the data centre, to check on the systems, the Department had reassured itself of the efficiency of the system. All this meant that, should the systems in the building be offline, the data would still be able to be externally accessed.
Mr Arendse decried the loss of expensive equipment that had blown as a result of continuous power outages.
On Year Beyond, Mr Arendse said that the question did not seem 100% clear, as it related to a specific Department, the WCED. The mandate of the Department was solely technical support and providing access to the network and www. This remained the key strength of the Department. The WCED would have to be consulted in this matter.
The Chairperson thanked the Department for their competent responses to the questions. The Committee would definitely appreciate an oversight visit.
She asked whether the DG had any concluding remarks.
The DG responded that he had just typed a message to Mr Arendse to start working on an oversight visit programme for the Committee.
The DG recalled that the Premier had also recently launched the safety programme from the Fourth Floor Centre. He thanked his team for their professional responses to all of the questions that had been posed by the Committee.
The Chairperson then excused the Department delegation.
Resolutions and Actions
Mr Marais indicated that the Committee should express its gratitude for the honest and forthright manner in which the presentation had been conducted.
He suggested that the Committee should definitely take up the invitation to visit an academic hospital such as Tygerberg, Red Cross and Groote Schuur.
He reckoned that TV medicine would significantly help and did not require four to five hours transportation in an ambulance, which sometimes resulted in death for the patients.
Ms Baartman noted that Mr Marais had already covered her on the oversight visit to the tertiary hospitals. She further proposed that a comprehensive programme be compiled, and that it should possibly include a visit to the Technical Centre as well.
She also proposed that the Department should provide responses in writing on the other matters raised in between, which pertain to the clinic in Dorp St.
The Chairperson agreed with the proposals and requested the support staff to fix 27 July 2022 as a proposed date for the oversight visit.
The Chairperson also sought agreement from Members that all Committee meetings should take place on a Wednesday. Committee meetings would then take place every second Wednesday.
Ms Baartman said that it suited her, as it could possibly have clashed with her stewardship of the Finance Committee meetings.
The Committee also considered and adopted the Draft Committee Programme; the Draft Committee Quarterly Report (Oct – Dec 2021) & (Jan – March 2022); the Draft Committee 2021/22 Annual Activities Report and the draft Committee meeting minutes of 16 March 2022.
The Chairperson thanked everyone for attending.
The meeting was adjourned.
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