Who uses the Internet? A student of mine recently said she thought art galleries are frequented by ‘old rich white people’ (she is black). And many seem to believe that the Internet might be more or less as exclusive - at least if we swap ‘young’ for ‘old’. Behind this is a common idea that the Internet is a luxury - for rich (white) people and rich (white) countries. And so, the thinking goes, in South Africa (SA) we should focus on sorting out the basics - like getting textbooks to Limpopo - before we worry too much about the World Wide Web. But it turns out that the Internet in SA is not mainly for rich people, certainly not mainly for white people and used by both young and old.
So here is the news - and it is a story that might surprise many though hopefully NGO Pulse readers will be less surprised than some others. One in three adults in SA - over 12 million people - use the Internet. That is more than double the number that used it four years ago. Most of them speak an African language at home, and four out of 10 are living on less than R1 500 a month. Most of them finished their education at high school and are of all ages. In other words, the typical Internet user is now not that much different to the typical South African - just a little older maybe, and a little paler, a little more educated and a little better off.
How do we know this? Towards the end of 2012, a new report was published by Wits Journalism at the University of Witwatersrand. The report is based on a major survey of South African adults conducted in collaboration with Research ICT Africa. The survey shows that over the last few years, a New Wave of Internet users has come online. This New Wave is young, black, school educated and certainly not rich. And they have come online in spite of the fact that few own computers and few have an Internet connection at home. People are using their mobile phones, they are going to Internet cafés and, if they are students, they are often going online where they learn.
So why are they using this luxury? The answer is that the Internet is not a luxury at all. The reasons that users give for why they first went on line are; to get information, to socialise, to study, for work and to look for jobs. These sound much more like basic needs than luxuries. The basic need to get information for work, for study or just for living a better life and the basic need to connectwith our friends and family - in a country where many of us, from Marikana to Morningside, have to maintain our relationships over long distances. In other words - they need for information and communication that enable modern life.
But they are still beyond the reach of most. About half of those who do not use the Internet say they would go online if it was available within walking distance of where they live and would pay at least R50 per month for the privilege. That is a challenge for the public sector and a market opportunity in excess of R7 billion a year for the private sector. What will it take to make happen? The report suggests two things. First, though mobile data costs have fallen a little, they need to fall much further. As Alan Knott-Craig, the former chief executive officer (CEO) of Vodacom and now the CEO of Cell C, says, “We need to be talking not 5c a meg but 5c a gig.” Second, we need to increase shared access that brings the Internet closer. Mpumalanga announced that almost every library there now provides free Internet access. Not every province has done the same. Most universities now provides free access for their students but only a minority of schools and further educations institution do. Cheaper data costs would make Internet cafes viable in more places. NGOs - and not only those that deal directly with issues around communication - have a significant role to play in advocating for these things to happen.
The report was launched at the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein – Johannesburg’s newest art gallery. A few of my students were there (not white, not rich and certainly not old) tweeting from their phones. Is it such a stretch to imagine a time when we could send the texts Limpopo’s children need via the net? The new Internet wave has brought us to a point where imagining a country where everyone is affordably connected to everybody does not seem entirely implausible. Even today, our research shows, the online community is a broad one that offers many opportunities for civil society organisations to engage.
You can read or download the report: The New Wave – Who uses the Internet, where they use it and what they use it for at http://www.networksociety.co.za.
You can comment at www.facebook.com/sanetworksociety or #TheNewWave on Twitter.
- Indra de Lanerolle (@indradl and indradelanerolle.blogspot.com) is the author of the New Wavereport. He is a Visiting Research Associate at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and a media and communications consultant specialising in communications for change. He has consulted on digital strategies to Corruption Watch, Soul City and Local Government Action.