South Africa can’t seem to shake the title of most unequal country in the world, which it was given by the World Bank in 2019, and still holds to this day.
South Africa’s injustices are now feeding a relatively new form of disparity, that is, digital inequality. Digital access and literacy may be far from the mind of the person reading this very article on our website or app, but for many in South Africa, it is a harsh reality that is increasing the country’s inequality gap.
According to Dudu Mkhwanazi of Project Isizwe, a social enterprise that aims to provide low-income communities with affordable access to wifi, 7.5 million low-income South Africans are paying 80 times more than middle- and upper-income citizens for access to the internet, exacerbating inequality in the country.
South Africa’s digital divide can be broken down into three factors: access to hardware, understanding digital means of communication, and internet affordability. These factors are having a negative impact on two of the country’s best chances at development and equality, those being access to education and access to employment opportunities.
The pandemic has made matters worse in both spaces, with 2.2 million people in the country having lost their jobs as a result COVID-19’s impact on the economy, and an estimated 750,000 children having dropped out of school because of a lack of access to remote education. Access to education and providing job opportunities have the ability to reduce South Africa’s large inequality gap, however with most things moving online, citizens could miss out on both.
In order to understand how digital inequality affects the most vulnerable people, we spoke to two experts. First we reached out to Dr Moeti Kgware, lecturer at the Durban University of Technology and Chief Education Officer at education consultancy and training organisation, MoCPD, to find out how the digital divide is impacting education in South Africa.
We also spoke to business consultant and lecturer at the University of Cape Town, Rowan Spazzoli, who shed some light on how digital illiteracy and lack of access affects the search for employment in the country.
To what extent do you believe the digital divide is increasing the education inequality gap in the country?
Moeti Kgware (MK): Working at a university I realised that, just the equipment — we’re talking data, we’re talking electronics — the majority of students don’t have access to this equipment. That’s laptops, smartphones, or if they do have, they’re not the top of the range smartphones that can be able to accommodate the amount of data or information that they have to either get, or produce for us. Secondly is the actual access through data or wifi is a problem. When students are in Durban at the university, coming from rural places they have access to the internet. When they leave campus, we at the university still continue to be digital, but the places where they are, they don’t have access to coverage for their phones, or quality phones at all. That leads to a lot of students lagging behind.
What are some first-hand encounters you've experienced that indicated the need to bridge South Africa's digital divide?
MK: In the past year I’ve been lecturing research methodology to a group of advanced students, and some of them I never saw. COVID-19 hit us just as I began teaching them, so I spent a year teaching online. I had a class of 88, but at no time did I have more than 32 in that class. I had to record some of my lessons and send them over to students, but some of them could never access them. Just to give you an example, they would use those R400 - R500 (approximately $30) affordable smartphones, the ones where you have to delete a picture to be able to save a new one — can you imagine a lecture of two hours being sent to that? They wouldn’t be able to access them.
Recently, I had an assignment where I wanted them to record videos, a short clip of two minutes. Out of a class of 25, I only received five because when what happened in KwaZulu Natal happened, [civil unrest and looting across the province] most of the students went back home, and only those who were left on campus were able to send videos because of access to wifi, the rest couldn’t.
What has the digital divide done for the success rate of students?
MK: I eventually got a 60% pass rate last year, but I can really say that if it had been a face-to-face class or if I was teaching them, I wouldn’t have set the kind of assessments that I did. I won’t say I made them easy, but what they had, I can’t compare it to the year before [pre-COVID], where I was able to stand in front of them and teach them very difficult and in-depth things. The success rate was not so good, and even the ones who passed, I don’t think they’ll be able to, currently as it stands, stand up and say confidently “I know how to do research because of being in this class.” They might have to go through some sort of refresher when things get better or when they have better access to information.
Are there actions being taken by the university or the government to improve access to digital means?
MK: The university really does try. They have made access for a lot of students, the ones who are on NSFAS (the National Student Financial Aid Scheme) and those who are low-income but unable to get NSFAS, have been given some form of loans or bursaries to get laptops, and they provide data to the students. The issue becomes where the students live. If they were on campus everything would be fine, but they’re in places where they don’t necessarily have access to internet coverage and that’s basically a problem of the country and not necessarily of the institution itself.
What can the country do to improve digital access?
MK: Improvement of infrastructure, infrastructure that brings coverage to places that are outliers. That’s what I think the government can do; improve wifi access, improve coverage through access to the internet, and just make sure that in most places in the country, people that are living there can be able to access very good cell phone coverage and internet coverage as well. Also data is expensive and that needs to change.
Bringing the price of data down needs action from the government, I think everything starts there. Currently we don’t have any way to subsidise data from the government as citizens. If the government could be able to either subsidise or ensure that the private providers of data and internet make it more affordable, I think that would be something. There has to be a directive, which has to come from the government telling those guys to give us a better price.
Why is ending digital inequality so important for the future of education?
MK: We don’t know what the future holds and if you look at how expensive things become every year, for example, for students, just accommodation itself, having to move from where people live to come and get a flat or residence in the city, it’s so expensive that if we’re able to get better digital coverage, we could be able to teach anywhere, and they could be able to learn anywhere.
I believe, if the digital divide could be bridged, we don’t have to move around like we normally do. People could be able to multi-mode, and by this I mean, either be educated physically, or be there digitally. This actually would, in the long run, lead to a whole lot of costs saved, especially for those who cannot afford, and to a better life for everyone.
How has the digital divide increased the rate of inequality in the working world?
Rowan Spazzoli: As we’ve moved into lockdowns, the jobs that are digitally enabled are usually the higher-paying jobs, they are the ones that you need access to a computer for. A lot of opportunities are becoming more available online, and the growth of opportunities is developing less when it comes to opportunities outside of the digital landscape.
For example, recruitment happens a lot online, education happens a lot online, and if you don’t have access to data, to a device, and to the knowledge or the skills to be able to access it, it separates [people] far deeper than before in terms of inequality.
In what ways does digital illiteracy form a barrier between the unemployed and their future employment?
RS: This is a major area of concern, digital illiteracy essentially means that access to finding jobs that might be available through online means, for example from online platforms, immediately becomes something that you get cut out of, and as soon as that happens you almost narrow the amount of jobs that you have access to. Digital illiteracy creates a barrier to access to potential employment for people.
Secondly, traditionally a lot of times your CV would be mailed in or handed into an office, and working in a remote world or a digital world, that just doesn’t happen as much. I know that there are some organisations like Silulo which is an internet cafe company run by Luvuyo Rani — one of the most incredible social entrepreneurs — and what they have tried to do is train people and provide digital literacy skills so that they can make use of the internet cafe services to submit their CVs, and also help them put together their CVs.
What are some immediate actions South Africa can take to bridge the digital divide?
RS: A big one would be supporting organisations that are working in the space, like Silulo, various tech incubators like Bandwidth Barn in Khayelitsha which tries to make internet accessible and digital space accessible for entrepreneurs, and even various skills academies. I’d say the first part is supporting skills training, so supporting organisations that [teach] skills, the second is to lower the cost of data and lower the cost of connection to the internet. When we’re sitting with our data costs as high as they are, it actually is more expensive for somebody to access the internet with a mobile phone than with a fixed line. Providing free wifi services and providing low-cost data I think is essential to bridge the digital divide.
Skills are important, access to data is important or cheaper data or cheaper connection to the internet. I know that there’s an organisation that does that called Qwili which is trying to do that in terms of providing cheaper devices.
My biggest thing around access to digital spaces is that it immediately expands the world of opportunities that are available to a person. The more you’re able to provide access to digital literacy skills, access to being online and if we build software that caters to people in a way that makes online spaces more accessible to them, the more we’re able to level the playing field and make it a more equal ground.
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