SADC Futures of Digital Geopolitics: Towards African Digital Sovereignty

Image: Getty, Tetiana Lazunova
Image: Getty, Tetiana Lazunova

The digitisation of data – spurred on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – presents the Southern African region with very real opportunities for developmental leapfrogging.

Summary:

  • As big tech’s next data frontier, the digital revolution holds great potential for Africa to break from its existing development trajectory, reimagine its digital governance and assert itself as a sovereign and innovative digital actor globally.
  • Investment in new technological infrastructure requires not only the concurrent development of regulatory environments that allow SADC countries to reap their benefits but also the protection of societies from the unintended consequences of these technologies, which are aligned with existing societal and/or constitutional norms.
  • Amid growing geopolitical and geo-economic competition in an ever-more polarised world, the provision of digital infrastructure is no longer a normatively neutral activity. Increasingly, technologies develop within the context of ideological environments that ultimately shape regulatory environments. As such, the new domain of digital geopolitics is emerging.
  • Three dominant regulatory approaches to digitalisation, associated with the three most dominant geopolitical role players, currently exist: the essentially market-driven US approach; the state-centred Chinese approach; and the emerging European approach that bills itself as trustworthy and human centric.  
  • In order for Africa to break the historical chains that confine it to a subsidiary position in global supply chains, it will have to sequence digital development on its own terms, driven by its developmental needs and to further digital democracy.
  • Existing legislation for regulating digital spaces in many Southern African countries often consists of perfunctory and vague constitutional provisions such as citizens’ right to privacy. Privacy-by-design and human rights in digital governance policies, as well as the strengthening of regulatory capabilities, should be prioritised by policymakers.
  • SADC member states should develop frameworks and harmonised country-level strategies to accelerate regional integration and data sovereignty, foster Southern African collective digital intelligence at the global scale and promote data as a collective resource for public good.

1 Nov 2022