Bridging the digital divide and Covid-19

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Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.

The prolific science fiction writer William Ford Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In the switch to an online offering of our learning programmes, we found that the University of Johannesburg represented an accurate depiction of South Africa’s digital divide. While Zoom, Microsoft Teams and even WhatsApp provided solutions, they failed to answer issues of inequality, inequity and lack of access. Data, Wi-Fi and access to smartphones and tablets at the very least are necessities for a complete transition to online teaching and learning. However, this is not a reality for many of our students, many of whom are first in their families to graduate from university.

Our digital divide, encompassed by access to the internet, education, skilled-employment and technological innovation, is indicative of the vast inequality in our country. The drive from Sandton to Alex or Khayelitsha to Cape Town is a stark example of how pervasive this is. It is quite clear that our digital divide, like many of the other inequalities apparent in our country, corresponds to class, race and gender lines. In a country marred by a deepening gap between the haves and the have nots, the digital divide threatens to leave huge swathes of our population behind.

According to a 2017 Statistics SA report on inequality, the proportion of households with access to the internet connection in South Africa grew significantly from 23.9% in 2009 to 62.2% by 2017. Yet, as the data indicated, even though there was increased access to internet connections in households in rural areas, they lagged significantly behind to households in urban areas – highlighting a stark digital divide.

Karen Lomeland Jacobsen of the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) in Norway pre-empted this in 2003 with the rise of telecommunications in the nineties. An econometric analysis found that there was a distinct correlation between telecommunication and economic growth. As she further dissected this, she found that the impact on growth from development in telecommunications was more significant in developing countries than in developed countries. Quite simply put, developing countries saw more substantial gains in productivity across the various sectors because of development in the telecommunication sector.

We saw a grim prognosis of the economy this week. South Africa’s growth and unemployment crisis was worsening even before the Covid-19 pandemic, which necessitated a national lockdown that has brought much of the economy to a grinding halt. Some would argue that the initial forecasts indicated that we were to fall into a recession this year before the pandemic even hit. The pandemic has all but confirmed this. Forecasts, whether on the conservative side or not, indicate that our economy will see its worst performance since the great depression of 1929 – effectively making this the worst year for growth in almost a century.

On the 23 June 2020, data from Statistics SA showed that unemployment has climbed to a record high of 30.1% in the first quarter. The extended classification of unemployment, which includes discouraged work-seekers or people who have given up looking for a job, sits uncomfortably at 39.7%. The grim reality is that these numbers are only expected to rise as the fallout from the lockdown truly begins to translate. The Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni, in the supplementary budget, said he expected growth to contract by 7.2%. Some private-sector economists are forecasting a contraction to the tune of 10%. As we battle on, we are also facing a new reality: the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). If the pandemic has produced any positives, it is that it has revealed, which industries and sectors are best positioned to digitalise. Technologies of the 4IR are set to transform every sphere of society – and in many instances, particularly in the last few months, already have. Yet the challenge is that we need to ensure that no one is left behind.

From the point of a view of an educator, the shift to an online model is one step – this to some extent, provides access to education for more students than traditional brick and mortar institutions do. This, in part, addresses the thresholds and limited capacity of institutions. We need to adapt our education system to one that adequately equips students. This must encompass upskilling, reskilling and providing access to on-the-job training. In particular, we also need to renew our focus on primary education. Including skills such as coding at this level could be beneficial. Yet, this does not address the enduring problem of the many people who are left behind because of a fundamental lack of access.

Greater access to data and devices will require backing from our telecommunications sector, especially as the cost of data remains much higher than some of our peer nations. This must be addressed to ensure equity. A report released by Cable.co.uk, a UK price comparison website, last month showed that mobile data in South Africa is amongst the most expensive in Africa, although we fare better than the likes of the United States, Switzerland, New Zealand and Canada, for instance. The report showed that South Africa currently ranks 148 out of 228 countries on the price of mobile bandwidth. The caveat, of course, being that we do not have the same infrastructure as many of the countries we are grouped with. Last year December, the Competition Commission ordered MTN and Vodacom to drop their mobile data prices. This saw the operators lower their prices by an average of 33%.

However, this is still not a realistic price point for the poor. One solution is greater access to Wi-Fi. Already, free Wi-Fi such as AlwaysOn is available in airports and malls. There are NGOs and community organisations that provide centres to work from. Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPPU) provide free Wi-Fi at their offices in Lotus Park in Gugulethu and Harare Square in Khayelitsha. The Wot-If Trust in Diepsloot has a digital lab, with a free Wi-Fi centre. They also teach the basics of robotics coding and how to make it fun for kids in the area using the trainer concept, which allows the passing on of skills.

The British Council’s Creating Opportunity for South Africa’s Youth (COSY) project has partnered with Digify Africa to impart digital skills to the youth, particularly women, in rural and peri-urban areas. Programmes such as this are where we should be focusing our efforts in ensuring access. The telecommunications giants have responded with solutions during the lockdown. For instance, MTN and Vodacom also have zero-rated, or made freely accessible, many learning sites. Vodacom provides a zero-rated learning portal, with free content for all school grades. Telkom, MTN and Vodacom have provided UJ with limited free data for our students during this time. While this is commendable and has provided some short-term solutions, there needs to be a long-term view. Universities have also had to come to the party. UJ, for instance, has provided almost 6,000 devices to students. There is an opportunity for tech giants to get involved here so that we continue to give people access.

We also need to start looking at feasible 5G solutions. Here, South Africa is trailing significantly behind. Building a more robust economy requires that we have the infrastructure in place. Interestingly, we are now leaping to 5G when 4G coverage remains so low in some areas. Yet, the capabilities of 5G extend too far beyond faster internet on our phones. Of course, 5G smartphones give you the capability to download a movie in less than a minute, stream videos much like you stream audio and complete faster web searches, but it is more than just that. 5G can support self-driving cars, for instance, through central controller at a road intersection or communicating with each other. While Uber has been making huge investments into self-driving cars, 5G can make this reality. These self-driving cars do not need a driver because they drive themselves.

5G could also transform healthcare, particularly to remote areas. It was announced last month that MTN would launch its 5G commercial network in South Africa this week, following Rain and Vodacom. There are still enormous hurdles to overcome. For one, South Africa continues to lag behind other countries in implementation as the required spectrum has not been released by ICASA the regulating authority. While spectrum was temporarily released during the lockdown, there needs to be a view towards a long term solution. Then, of course, is the challenges posed by infrastructure.

Networks will need to invest in upgrading equipment at their towers while people, who already struggle with access to devices as it stands, must contend with the stark reality that most current devices are simply not 5G ready. The studies back it – without greater access to data, we will risk falling further behind in the 4IR. This is a move we simply cannot afford, particularly given the seemingly dire outlook for our economy. Bridging the digital divide begins with cheaper and faster internet for us to leapfrog other emerging economies, particularly in Asia.

As Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, executive director of the American Jazz Museum, once said about the digital divide, “It’s no longer a luxury. This is serious. It’s really a social justice issue. It’s a 21st-century civil rights issue.”     

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.  He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.