Digital Inequality: South Africa’s Next Great Divide

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Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels.

The lockdown due to Covid-19 has changed our way of life. Constraints on in-person contact, the elimination of large gatherings and conferences has amongst others, transformed how we work, interact and learn.  It also glaringly exposed, how the spatial, economic and social inequalities that were characteristic features of the apartheid period have persisted in post-apartheid South Africa. This begs the question, whether this potential form of digital inequality should be included alongside other traditional forms of inequality.

Moving to a reliance on communicating online has highlighted a digital divide. This divide can be defined as any uneven distribution in the access to, use of, or impact of information and communications technologies between any number of distinct groups, which can be defined based on social, geographical, or geopolitical criteria, or otherwise. An article by Francis and Taylor, have found that digital inequalities are associated with race, class, gender and other inequalities and can reinforce existing social inequalities and even exacerbate them because they carry over pre-existing differences in human capital into online settings.

Access to online networks allows one to build social capital such as linkages and networks, to access employment opportunities and to achieve educational attainment. Consequently, not having access will further marginalise the poor, those in rural and township communities, and in particular, women-headed households.

According to Statista , in 2018, 37.9 percent of households in South Africa were women headed, which amounted to a total of approximately 6.1 million. Provinces with larger portions of rural areas — such as Eastern Cape (46.9 percent), Limpopo (45.8 percent) and KwaZulu-Natal (45 percent) — were more likely to share large numbers of women-headed households, whereas urbanized provinces — such as Gauteng (29.8 percent), which includes Johannesburg, and Western Cape (32.5 percent), which includes Cape Town — were less likely to have female-headed households.  

A working paper by Economic Research Southern Africa found that women-headed households are generally associated with higher poverty incidence relative to male-headed households. The paper further found that women-headed households have generally been on the increase in South Africa.

The National Planning Commission (NPC) released its 107 paged Draft Paper, Digital Futures: South Africa’s Readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution for public comment on the 6 July 2020. Deadline for comments ended on 27 July, however, the public was allowed to comment up until the 15 August 2020, if they wanted the committee to engage their submissions. The Paper confirms that technology will not be equitably shared without significant policy interventions and that in 2017, just over half (51%) of the South African population had access to the Internet. Access is linked to affordability because lower prices lead to greater access and use.  

The South African National Broadband Policy (SA Connect) was developed in 2012 to meet the goals of the National Development Plan (NDP) by laying the groundwork for an integrated supply-side and demand-side strategy to meet the NDP’s goals of a “… dynamic and connected information society and a vibrant knowledge economy that is more inclusive and prosperous’ by 2030”.  The Paper points out that the SA Connect Strategy has been impeded by, amongst other: lack of continuity in leadership (changing of ministers and the splitting of the Department of Communication), which brought about the incapacitation of several administrations; state-owned enterprises (SOEs) being compromised by corruption, some were underfunded and could not compete while others were locked in litigation over responsibilities for spectrum and another was facing intra-organisational litigation.

The Paper makes several recommendations; however, my view is that the recommendation that the Regulator must ensure that there “is sufficient spectrum available in the necessary bands to support the shift from voice services to data services and the reduction in the cost of providing data services”, must be prioritised. The Ministry of Communication and SOEs tasked with implementing these policies and laws must be held accountable as much time has passed with very little progress and the digital inequality gap is growing, continuing to exclude the poor, rural communities, and in particular, women-headed households.   

Communities negatively impacted must rope in their community councillors and provincial political representatives to voice their frustrations.  Particularly now, as Covid-19 has forced citizens to move online, the huge costs of data and not sufficient bandwidth in certain areas excludes rural and poor communities from participating in many activities taking place online.  Perhaps social organisations should start making a case that digital inequality deserves a place alongside more traditional forms of inequality in order for it to receive the attention it deserves?