South Africa’s digital divide detrimental to the youth

Remote work schedules, YouTube tutorials and livestreaming have turned lockdown into “business as usual” for the more fortunate among us. For most young South Africans, however, the shutdown of schools, universities and businesses has put the brakes on their ability to grow and learn — at a time when they could and should be growing and learning as much as they can.

Lindokuhle, a 21-year-old from Langa who is part of the Youth Capital network says: “Connectivity is a problem. Like most young people, I rely on internet cafes, as they have standard prices, to do my CV, apply for jobs and do my school work. Covid-19 has dramatically decreased our productivity and is threatening our possible livelihood.”

After an inquiry launched in 2017 — based on complaints from the public about the high cost of data — in December 2019 the Competition Commission confirmed that the country’s data prices were too high, especially for mobile prepaid data, and recommended that mobile networks reduce the price of bundles below one gigabyte. The commission also recommended that networks agree on an industry-wide approach to zero-rating public benefit and educational institution websites. 

Just days after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in South Africa, Vodacom announced it was cutting the price of its 1GB bundle by 34%; MTN followed suit, announcing a reduction in the price of its monthly 1GB bundles and below by between 25% and 50%. And the day before national lockdown was put into place, the government publicised Telkom’s decision to make government and education sites access-free on their network. Vodacom and MTN have also since zero-rated many learning sites, with Vodacom offering a zero-rated e-school portal with content for grades R to 12. In addition to Free Basics, CellC also announced a lifeline package for prepaid customers and access to zero-rated content on selected public-benefit and government websites.

Although these price revisions and the zero-rating of educational content are a step in the right direction, we still have a long way to go if we want to ensure more equitable access to relevant content that could help those who need it most, now and post Covid-19. 

Telkom, Vodacom and MTN have each established their own zero-rated portals, with free access to network-curated content on education, jobs, health, news and government websites ­— CellC is adding content to its existing platform, including government sites. This content is limited and accessible for free if you belong to their network. Upskilling content for out-of-school youth is not prioritised in any of the zero-rated platforms. And this is cause for serious concern.

“We have seen a drastic reduction in the jobs available for the youth; young people should use this time to focus on learning a new skill and develop soft skills to increase the chance of finding employment post social distancing,” says Jaryd Raizon, CEO of graduate recruitment platform Trusted Interns. 

Twenty-eight-year-old Tumi from Johannesburg echoes Jaryd’s views: “As young people, we need to prepare ourselves for the loss of jobs and economic impact of Covid-19. Upskilling now could ensure you stand out from the crowd when things return to normal, but with the current data costs and lack of internet infrastructure in poor areas, that’s just not the case.”

With 56% of South Africans living on less than R41 a day, data doesn’t fall into the core basket of affordable essentials for the majority of households. Even with price reductions, data prices remain high for the average South African. Moreover, the process so far has focused on negotiations with individual mobile network operators, and not a co-ordinated, industry-wide approach towards securing universal access to information and services to all South Africans, regardless of the colour of their SIM cards.

Lindokuhle comments that not everyone can afford a gig of data because they have other needs.  In South Africa, looking for work is unaffordable for most young job-seekers, who spend an average of R550 a month job hunting, with data being one of the biggest contributors to this hefty sum. Many young people in the Youth Capital network admit they can look for work only when they have the money to do so. And with eight million young people (aged 15 to 35) unemployed and not in education, employment or training (NEET), we simply cannot afford for our young people not to have the means to look for work.

Recognising that price reduction on its own will not have a sufficient effect, the Competition Commission urged network operators to deliver a lifeline package of daily free data to all users to allow uninterrupted data access, regardless of income levels, while leveraging the increasing smartphone penetration. But the response received so far will not assist young people use this time productively.

A unified approach to zero-rating has the potential to unlock access to digital opportunities and information. A much-needed solution is freeing up all the education and upskilling content produced by public benefit organisations rather than a selection of content that is network-specific. This requires alignment and co-operation between the government and network operators, as a true example of social compacts in response to sudden changes in our society.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s the power of technology to connect, educate and empower — but in South Africa, your access to digital resources still depends on which cell phone service provider you’re linked to and how much data you can afford. Let’s take the lesson and push for universal access, including for a generation of young people who are stuck at home and hungry to learn.

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Kristal Duncan-Williams
Kristal Duncan-Williams, who has a master's in public health from the University of Cape Town, is the project lead for Youth Capital, a project incubated by DG Murray Trust. She has over 10 years’ experience in research in the fields of molecular biology, public health and youth employment. She is passionate about unlocking the untapped potential of young South Africans and believes that quality education, healthcare and employment are the critical building blocks for a thriving society. She has experience in research-driven advocacy and is passionate about making data accessible and engaging for everyone, so that they are able and equipped to advocate for themselves

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