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Between the local government elections, Brexit, #FeesMustFall, the goings on at the National Prosecuting Authority, the State Capture Report and the triumph of Trump, it has certainly been an eventful 2016. While we have been entertained by social media depictions of the arrival of Jesus during the local elections and the ongoing search for the #SaxonwoldShebeen, the jokes belie something far more serious.

Amidst the court interdicts, South Africa has been left rudderless as the ruling party turns on itself in its quest to protect privilege. Instead of focusing on the strategic management of South African resources to ensure growth, development and service delivery, far more effort appears to have been spent on diverting cash flows for the benefit of the privileged few.

The current leadership vacuum is also having a negative impact on the South African geospatial sector which has been working for years to gain the collective attention of South Africa’s national leadership. Whether via surveying, GIS or remote sensing, there is no denying that geomatics professionals have the strategic skills to assist with effective governance. However, the geomatics sector also needs the support of political leaders whose attention is focused on governing, not gathering.

The South African geomatics industry needs government leadership to recognise the urgent need to develop and implement national strategies, policies and legislation that will strengthen geospatial information management at local and national level. It needs leaders to understand and appreciate the role that geomatics plays in facilitating planning, revenue protection, asset and resource management, service delivery and disaster management. And it needs leaders to tackle the challenges of open data, as well as the issues of data security, availability, accessibility and privacy.

In the meantime though, people around the world have had enough of empty political promises and their impatience has led to the ANC losing ground during the local government elections, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the election of President Trump in the US.

These developments are a loud signal to political leaders that focused attention needs to be paid to the complex art of governing democratic societies. This entails governing for the benefit of the people, and not for the benefit of the elite at the expense of the poor.

In South Africa our elected officials need to check their consciences. Things cannot go on as they have been. Serious allegations have been raised about the management practices at our state-owned enterprises and in several of our national departments. The sooner these allegations are dealt with via an above-board judicial inquiry, the sooner honest government officials can resume their mandated responsibility of running South Africa.

In the meantime, the geomatics industry is standing at the ready with the geospatial data, skills and tools to ensure that government policies are carried out and that the allocated resources are distributed and utilised effectively for the benefit of the majority of South Africans.

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With looming local government elections and the country in an uproar over the current political leadership, it is immensely concerning to find the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) found wanting by the Public Protector, the Constitutional Court and the Electoral Court.

While questions are being asked about the integrity of this once proud piece of our democratic infrastructure, the geospatial community needs to focus its attention on the questions raised by the Constitutional Court and the Electoral Court with regard to the Tlokwe by-elections and the need for voters’ addresses to be provided on the voters’ role.

The Constitutional Court of South Africa in its ruling on 30 November 2015 regarding the case Kham and Others v Electoral Commission and Another, stated “that when registering a voter to vote in a particular voting district after the date of this order the Electoral Commission is obliged to obtain sufficient particularity of the voter’s address to enable it to ensure that the voter is at the time of registration ordinarily resident in that voting district” and it declared “that in all future municipal elections or by-elections the Electoral Commission is obliged in terms of section 16(3) of the Electoral Act 73 of 1998 to provide all candidates in municipal elections, on the date on which they are certified, with a copy of the segment of the national voters’ roll to be used in that ward in that election including the addresses of all voters, where these addresses are available.”

The IEC issued a statement on 29 February 2016 in response to the Electoral Court’s decision to postpone the Tlokwe by-election stating that it would appeal the ruling, and that it would also “embark on a variety of initiatives to update the voters’ roll with as many addresses for voters as possible ahead of the upcoming by-elections and this year’s Municipal Elections”.

Now people working with addresses in South Africa know all too well the difficulties of providing addresses for informal settlements and rural areas. To map and address every informal settlement in time for the upcoming elections is an impossibility and yet not providing an addressing solution puts our electoral process at risk as some political parties will be able take advantage of the voter registration process to ensure a win and other political parties will be able question the validity of the election results and hold the country and our democracy to ransom.

The local government elections have to be held by latest 16 August 2016, a mere four months away. One of the possible alternatives that the IEC needs to be looking at is mapcodes – a worldwide encoding system that allows any location on the surface of the earth to be represented by a short easily recognisable and memorable code. While the matter of tying the voter to the address is still an issue, a solution such as mapcodes (which is free) can deal with the matter of the actual location of the voter’s place of residence.

The geospatial community needs to be applying its thinking to this problem and needs to assist in providing a palatable solution to this dilemma. Informal settlements are not going to be disappearing soon and their residents have a right to an address and a right to vote. This is a prime opportunity for the leadership of the geospatial industry to step into the spotlight and provide some much needed guidance on matters of addressing.

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The announcement of the appointment of members to the Geomatics Council by Gugile Nkwinti, the minister of rural development and land reform, has been broadly welcomed by the geomatics community. A revisit to a paper by former PLATO president, Paul Marshall, entitled “The way forward for PLATO as a statutory body in the transitionary period towards the new SA Geomatics Council” provides some answers as to what lies ahead.

The first meeting of the Geomatics Council needs to take place within 30 days of the 22 May 2015 publication in the Government Gazette, and this date will then be the commencement date of the new Geomatics Profession Act. Members of the Geomatics Council have been appointed for four years as opposed to the previous council term of two years.

The main difference between the new Act and the 1984 Act is that the new Geomatics Council will becontrolled by the minister while the PLATO council was answerable to the minister. The Geomatics Council is required to meet twice a year as opposed to the previous arrangement of once a year, and it will be funded to a much larger extent by the department. The PLATO council was self-funded and was therefore largely independent of state funding. The new Geomatics Council is obliged to honour all existing commitments made by the PLATO Council.

One of the first new responsibilities of the Geomatics Council will be the publishing, within 90 days of its first meeting, of a code of conduct for its members. Until this new code of conduct is drafted and approved by the minister, the existing PLATO rules will remain in place. Should a conflict between the new Act and the existing rules occur, the Act will prevail. Marshall warned in his paper that while this arrangement will alleviate some of the immediate pressure to draft the code of conduct, it could lead to this matter not being treated with the necessary urgency.

The current Education Advisory Committee is likely to remain in place until a suitable Education and Training Committee is established. Marshall advised in his paper that this committee will need suitable and sufficient permanent members, and will need the backing of the minister to properly carry out its functions, especially the two yearly accreditation of qualifications at institutions offering surveying, mine surveying and geo-information science.

The establishment of a continuing professional development (CPD) programme is a specified duty of the new Geomatics Council and as such it will have much more authority when it comes to enforcing participation in the CPD programme.

A major challenge for the new Geomatics Council is that the Geomatics Act provides for the publishing of a recommended tariff of fees.  While this has generally been viewed as a positive development, the drafting of a “One Tariff Fits All” for the geomatics industry was identified by Marshall as being one of the more difficult tasks to be faced by the new Geomatics Council.

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As South Africa enters its worst drought in over 20 years, the balance of power in the food security versus land reform debate has shifted fundamentally.  Speaking at the 2015 Grain SA Congress in early March, the  Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana expressed concern over the impact of drought on food production for 2015 and 2016 stating  that  “the scale of the drought and its impact will change quite a few of our priorities”.

As of March 2015, the maize crop is likely to be 32% lower than last year and the sunflower crop 31% lower. An Emergency National Drought Task Team Meeting has been set up to discuss the drought conditions in the affected parts of the country and other drought risk management related matters within the sector, with feedback expected shortly.

The expected drop in the 2015 maize yield and the anticipated higher maize prizes, will have an additional impact on food security as maize is a basic input for the production of other food items e.g. red meat , chicken, eggs and milk, leading to associated price increases for basic food products. The power crisis has also contributed to (and will continue to contribute to) heightened food production costs via load shedding and raised energy costs, which will in turn have further additional impacts on South Africa’s food security.

The Regulation of Land Holdings Bill, which President Zuma spoke about in his State of the Nation Address and which Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti said would be passed into law by September 2015, has the potential to further negatively impact South Africa’s food security via its proposal to limit agricultural land holdings to 12 000 hectares. Farmers have been quick to point out that the 12 000 hectare limit would have a dire impact on certain types of farmers in certain locations i.e. a sheep farmer in the Karoo. Fortunately the agriculture minister has also been quick to re-iterate that nothing is cast in stone on this matter and that more debate is needed.

In addition, the ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe reiterated a number of times at a land reform imbizo held on 26 February 2015 that the ANC fully recognised the importance of food security and the role of commercial farmers in ensuring food security. He also made it clear that the ANC was not in favour of changes that would destroy the agricultural sector.

While land reform does need to be addressed, it is vital that it should not be carried out at the expense of food security. Land reform initiatives need to enhance food security for South Africans by developing effective support programmes for land redistribution beneficiaries, and by supporting joint ventures between successful farmers and new-entrants. Monitoring programmes too are vital for tracking the progress of land claims, the effectiveness of beneficiary support programmes, the provision of adequate supporting infrastructure, and ensuring that adequate crop reserves have been retained for times of drought.

The geospatial community – whether via surveying, GIS, remote sensing, and/or mapping  – has the skills to ensure that all of this gets done. The powers-that-be, the ultimate decision-makers, the ministers, the director-generals, need to be made aware of the super-powers that reside within the geospatial sector so that they can adequately fund and make effective inter-departmental,  co-ordinated use of these skills.

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The South African geospatial industry needs to participate in the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) regulatory process driven by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). This process seeks to govern the use of UAS in South Africa with the initial establishment of interim regulations in 2015. By participating in this process, the geospatial industry and its representatives will be able to ensure that the requirements of the sector, whether UAS suppliers, UAS operators, data collectors and/or data users, are met by the interim regulations and ultimately the final regulations.

Like it or not, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS), or UAS are here to stay. As technology has advanced, these systems have become increasingly sophisticated. These days UAS feature lightweight airframes and advanced propulsion systems with built-in accelerometers, gyroscopes, GPS and altimeters. They are capable of carrying payloads that include high resolution/hyperspectral/lidar cameras, and can operate for significant distances, at high altitudes, out of line-of-sight, and are efficient to operate and require little maintenance.

With the increasing popularity of UAS, it is not surprising that a major concern for civil aviation bodies around the world is the safe and responsible operation of UAS. Few will disagree that this needs to be addressed, but many worldwide are concerned about the lengthy delays in regulating their use.

The Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International (AUVSI) predicts that the economic impact of integrating UAS into US air space will result in an economic impact of US$13,6-billion in the first three years resulting in the creation of 34 000 manufacturing jobs and more than 70 000 jobs in the first three years of integration. AUVSI is of the opinion that every year that the US delays, it loses over US$10-billion in potential economic impact. While these figures may not be as great in South Africa, they will probably still be very significant and it seems a great pity that South Africans are being held back in their attempts to get this potential growth sector up and running.

Clearly, it is vital that the geospatial industry, in the form of individuals, companies and associations, gets involved in the UAS regulatory process to ensure that the regulations cover the needs that the geospatial sector will require of this burgeoning UAS technology.  It is essential that the regulations do not impinge unnecessarily on the potential quality of data collected by today’s UAS, and the UAS of the future. Already issues regarding night flights, out of line-of-sight flights and payloads are a concern, and these are factors that will impact on UAS operators seeking to service the geospatial sector.

By participating actively in this regulatory process, the South African geospatial sector will be well placed to educate its members on the responsible handling and optimal use of UAS. Keeping in touch with developments in this arena will also ensure that the geospatial industry is well positioned to take advantage of the potential economic benefit of UAS technologies.

For additional information see: Unmanned aerial operator body discusses way forward

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