Digital Technology Access & Usage in South Africa

16 May 2015

The current position of inequity and exclusion in South Africa is magnified by the impact of digital exclusion which is now being recognised across the developed world as a serious matter requiring a large effort. While digital exclusion is seen as a major issue in the developed world, its impacts in countries like South Africa are now being recognised as profoundly important in addressing social, economic and cultural equity. There are a number of digital exclusion issues on the South African agenda. Foremost amongst these are concerns regarding the current levels of access to ICTs and the internet,  the lack of e-skills required to participate in the Information Society, as well as levels of uptake and effective usage of ICTs by the broader citizenry.

The 2012 National e-Skills Plan of Action (NeSPA) states that “There is common understanding among the developed and developing countries that development of the knowledge-based and innovation-driven economies and a society is not possible without having highly ICT-skilled (e-skilled) knowledge workers and digitally literate (e-literate) citizens (as consumers, clients, participants, friends, families and communities). ICT-related knowledge, skills and competences (also referred to as e-competencies) are critical for the growth of “new age” economies that indispensably require innovation and aggregation of resources, to achieve global competitiveness. In the South African context, e-skills are broadly defined as the ability of people to use and create all forms of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in order to achieve equitable prosperity and global competitiveness in general, and to improve their life opportunities in: (i) personal and educational space, (ii) work environments, (iii) community interactions and (iv) participation in government processes.”

The importance of access to ICT as a means for development was recognized as far back as 1980 with the commissioning of a report by UNESCO that identified the need for a more equitable allocation of resources in the field of communication.  A number of stakeholders worldwide had committed large resources to provide access to ICT to underserved communities.  They developed “places” or “spaces” where community members could have access to computers, and specifically to networked computers.   The places are called “multi-purpose centres” or telecentres or “public access centres”.  Because of the ability to give necessary access to information, these public access centres, such as telecentres, have been “hailed as the solution to development problems around the world”.

Today these centres offer access to the Internet, e-mails, government information, e-learning and often include faxing, copying and scanning services as well.  There are also local examples of centres which offer other types of services.  These range from the selling of mobile-airtime, repairs of computers, and importantly certifications in a variety of ICT courses as a means of responding to the dirth of e-skills across the nation.

Public access centres comprise of cybercafés, libraries and telecentres, or multipurpose centres.  Public access centres have been established worldwide to serve disadvantaged communities, and many countries have deployed a plethora of models in a bid to address digital divide issues. The Census 2011 indicates that the majority of South Africans do not have access to the internet.  Important findings from the recently released New Wave Report provide a clear rationale for an expanded public access centre programme.  The findings in this report indicate that “for most of those without access at home or work (about four out of five new users) our data shows that Internet cafés, and (to a lesser extent) schools and colleges, are often important point of access that may address some of these limitations of the mobile Internet and enable users to widen the range of online services that they use online”.

A recently released report from the University of Washington Technology & Social Change Group found that public access venues play a critical role in extending the benefits of ICTs to large sections of the population, despite the expansion of mobile telephone access. They also state that “public access enables change in personal, social, economic, and other realms of life, by providing the technological and human tools (basic or advanced) that open up the information society to individuals”.

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