Prioritizing Digital Divide in South Africa
I believe Kofi Annan put it best when he delivered a speech to the World Summit on the Information Society in 2013 when he broke down how multi-layered the digital divide is. South Africa, as one of the most developing countries on the continent is quite the emerging player in the age of the digital, as industry honours the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). However, to even compete on a global stage with other 4IR economies, we need to focus on how to continue to participate in a digital world with profound inequalities that impedes social equality. And, in order to do that, these are the issues that I believe the nation can, and should prioritise:
February 11 is the date that the United Nations and its key partners and stakeholders worldwide marked for International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This day is important as it highlights the matter in question that sees less women in Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) fields, and to promote and empower more young women to take a role in the industry, especially as we’re in both the Digital and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. In South, the numbers aren’t inspiring either, as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that South Africa has approximately 40% of women scientists. Gender and cultural inequality has played a major role in the lack of adoption of women in this field as from a young age. The content that’s desired for young girls when it comes to aspirations (this from the toys played to gender specific assignments) is also culturally rooted. It’s no surprise that South Africa (and the rest of the world) is seeing a rise in programmes particularly tailored for young women who code like GirlHype and GirlCode to mention a few; it goes beyond the content of technology, but also what the community of other women coders can do to impact the psychological output inspired and having role models to look up to.
Tied to gender inequality is the cultural inequality that exists that enables the digital divide to thrive. South Africa is a country with much diversity, and in this diversity is many languages even though English is predominantly the teaching language of the country across all stages of learning across institutions. Can teaching in one’s native language impact the adoption and remove the intimation barrier of entering the market? Dr Mmaki Jantjies who is the Head of Information Systems and Lecturer at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and lecturer definitely believes so.
“I dedicate much of my research to seeing how can develop mobile learning software systems, accessible in South African languages in STEM subjects, that support teaching and learning in this area. In developing various adaptive mobile systems, I hope to address the existing contextual challenges in these sectors.” – Dr Mmaki Jantjies, who has worked with organisations like Mozilla and has, at present as a Google grant to develop curricula in native tongues and teach teachers how to navigate digital classrooms, and has had success.
Needing the language to decode the science is the argument. In a country where assessment is only majorly assessed in two languages (namely Afrikaans and English), and where Section 29(2) of the Constitution of South Africa is conditional on teaching in a learner’s language, more can be done to remove the veil of language intimidation. If leading economies like in Europe, North America, USSR and China have seen success with such and with it, seen students acquiring education and participating in the knowledge economy, then through political and societal will, it can be possible too for this nation.
South Africa has one of the most expensive data costs globally. According to research conducted by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), the country has the 3rd most expensive costs across BRICS countries. The country’s market is not a monopolistic one in telecommunications, there are a number of service providers including Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, Cell C and newly launched Rain which is a mobile data-only service at 5c per meg (R50 per gig), of which was introduced to the market as a call to action and gap to the high data costs. As costs continue to rise, for both consumer and producer, the market requires more competition, which as a result will offer us as consumers an opportunity to participate in the digital economy. As briefly mentioned, the cost of operating in the digital age is costly not only the consumer but also the telecommunication companies due to lack of availability of spectrum because of the delay in the government-led process of digital migration. According to Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub, because South Africa has not had access to spectrum of data for nearly over 14 years, this has caused the continuous hikes in prices and this needs and can be reduced by almost half if its introduced. At the end of the day, in as much as projects like Project Isizwe and Broadband Game Changer are implemented, the quality and speed of data of these public wifi hotspots are limited and for a long term play, could impede the stride that the strategy’s goal has.
The president of South Africa, in his recent State of the Nation address highlighted 4IR and mentioned that “…over the next six years, we will provide every school child in South Africa with digital workbooks and textbooks on a tablet device.”. This is inspired, and through the pipelines of education and infrastructure, government has a major role to play as an enabler of attempting to close the gap of the digital divide that exists. The reliance on aided development from the private sector and creating development policies that are only inclusive and benefit certain players in the industry is not wise, engagement with other strategic and key ecosystem players like universities, startups, STEM-focused NPCs are going to play a major role in pivoting acceleration at the matter at hand. On infrastructure, while it has taken over a decade for the spectrum issue to be resolved between the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services and ICASA for digital migration to take place, President Cyril Ramaphosa cemented confidence in that a new deadline for the completion of digital migration had been placed and that is was July 2020. As Ramaphosa mentioned, that this solution could provide “ …unlock significant value in the telecommunications sector, increase competition, promote investment and reduce data costs." , which in turn, will enable many more South Africans to access data, and access it cheaply, if only government plays its role in enabling.
Development comes in many perspectives and is no silver bullet, especially because its an answer framework that invites and honours practices from diverse disciplines like academia and culture and not just politics. What’s needed before access to tools and capital distribution by key stakeholders, is a policy that focuses on the strategy of ICTD and serves it as a precondition to the strategy, this is one of the key ways that we can continue our efforts in bridging the digital divide.
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