The growing importance of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in all domains of social life will contribute to the rising inequality and marginality of the excluded citizens in South Africa. Exclusion from Information Technology (IT) affects, among other things, the obtaining of better career and educational opportunities, greater personal advancement, fuller access to social networks and the use of public provisions. Although the advantages of computers and the differences they make in people’s lives are widely accepted, these advantages are of no value if people do not have access to technology or do not use it. Generally, there is quite an awareness of the first prerequisite and there are several initiatives by government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other community development programs to provide people with access to technology.
There is an awareness of the need for “access to technology,” and there are several initiatives by government, non-governmental organizations and other community development programs to fulfil this demand. The digital divide is, however, not only a matter of access; the challenge is also to empower people to become proficient computer users, even those with general literacy backlogs. People should become actively involved in order to stay computer literate. Demographic aspects such as age, gender, education and socio-economic status affect usage patterns and the gratification gained from Internet usage. The long-term solution to solve the problem of the digital divide is to uplift the socio-economic standard of a community.
Also, the digital divide is definitely not only a matter of possessing a household personal computer (PC) or having access to the Internet. It is the use of IT that determines who is ahead, who is catching up and who is left behind in the information society. As stated in one study, “Perhaps the most common social and political opinion is that the digital divide problem is solved as soon as every citizen or inhabitant has a computer and an Internet connection.
These misconceptions also exist within the South African government, which exhibits a clear techno-centric approach with technological optimism. According to the South African government, the development problems of Africa can be solved by the availability of and access to ICT. The danger exists, however, that if people do not become actively involved, they will stay computer illiterate, and therefore will remain afraid of IT and lag further and further behind. The challenge is not only to provide physical access but also to empower people to become proficient computer users, especially those with general literacy backlogs. But how difficult will it be to get people to use and continue using IT once they have gained access? What preconditions with respect to education, motivation, and cognitive abilities are necessary to enable people to learn how to use computers to their benefit?
The Diversity of the South African Society
Although South Africa is classified as a middle-income country, it is characterized by a wide range of developmental levels. As a result, the country is one of the world’s most inequitable societies with extensive disparities between rich and poor people. Currently, South Africa’s Gini co-efficient, an economic formula that expresses income inequality, is, at 0.679, the highest in the world, making South Africa the most unequal society worldwide. The 2001 Jensen research found that Internet access in South Africa was largely confined to urban areas, and that Internet users were predominantly white, city-dwellers, relatively affluent and well educated. Orviska and Hudson (2009) found a similar trend in European communities in that “Internet access is higher for young people, city dwellers and that it increases with education.” Although Internet access in the deep rural areas has improved since 2001, people still cannot afford computers, they still need to acquire the necessary skills to use them, and they still need to be educated about the services that Internet access offers.
Race, age, income and education are the most important predictors of computer access. White, Indian, and Asian people who are younger than 50 years of age, earned a monthly income in excess of R5 000, have at least a Grade 12-certificate, and live in specific geographical areas are more likely to have regular access to computers than others from very low-income areas in South Africa.
These communities demonstrate intensive use of cell phones, at levels that overshadow their use of less widely accessible technologies such as desktop computers. Notably, research results indicated that many young urban South Africans first access the Internet via their cell phones and that their concepts of the Internet and the media in general are strongly shaped by a distinct set of mobile applications.
The Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme can be used as a combined indicator of some of these factors. It can be used to obtain internationally comparable indicators of the ability of individuals within a country or across various countries to live long, informed and comfortable lives (Statistics SA 2004).
The South African government, NGOs and the private sector have been aware of this issue for quite some time. As long ago as 2001 the president of the country at the time underscored the importance of ICTs for social and economic development: “We must continue the fight for liberation against poverty, against under-development, against marginalization,” and “information and communication technology . . . is a critically important tool in that struggle” (Mbeki 2001). More recently, the Deputy Minister of Communications reiterated that “South Africa has an Information Society and Development Programme aimed at increasing South Africa’s uptake and usage of
Information Communication Technologies by government and individuals”.
Better education for the previously disadvantaged communities has been a standing priority of the South African government, and the introduction of ICTs in order to reach this goal has long been identified: “Through appropriate technologies, it is hoped that South Africa will leapfrog into the new century, bypassing the unnecessary adoption cycle, and implement a solution that works now, and has the capacity to handle future developments” (Department of Education 2003:10).
The statistics reported above reveal, however, that despite this long-standing awareness not much has been achieved during the past few years. South Africa is lagging further and further behind the rest of the world, with the rest of Africa catching up with us.
There are several initiatives by government, NGOs and other community development programs to provide people with access to technology. Provincial Education Departments in South Africa are trying their utmost to provide access at schools. However, there is a need for a change in mind-set for educators and officials in the government so that they view this as one of essentials towards economic development and that the trend is fast-tracking throughout the globe.
Pieter Blignaut: University of the Free State, Department of Computer Science and Informatics.
Christian Fuchs; Eva Horak - ICT&S Center for Advanced Studies and Research in Information and Communication Technologies and Society, University of Salzburg