Whenever politicians make speeches about innovation and future technology prospects, they will not omit the words “4th industrial revolution” and “digital divide”, which would make us assume that the government understands the technological problems we are facing as a country and are possibly implementing solutions to those problems. The facts however suggest otherwise, it seems like it is just a mere pep talk, in terms of policy South Africa is still larking way behind and the fact that we are a third world country should not be used as an excuse. Digital divide as they say is the gap between the access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the use of it.

South Africa is supposed to be leading the pack in terms oftechnology, the rest of Africa should be taking the queue from us however wecannot seem to get our house in order as most of the citizens are still notliberated from the digital divide.

Even Bill Clinton publicly condemned the digital divide asfar back in 1998 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We know from hard experience that unequal education hardens into unequal prospects. We know the Information Age will accelerate this trend. The three fastest growing careers in America are all in computer related fields, offering far more than average pay. Happily, the digital divide has begun to narrow, but it will not disappear of its own accord. History teaches us that even as new technologies create growth and new opportunity, they can heighten economic inequalities and sharpen social divisions. That is, after all, exactly what happened with the mechanization of agriculture and in the Industrial Revolution.

Bill Clinton – 1998

The sad part is that as South Africans and the rest ofAfrica in extension still have a significant percentage of the digital divide,and the main question is how can we resolve this issue? Theirony is that the answer to this question, surprising lies in the offlinespace.

Bridging the digital divide is not a simple task, it will require a collective effort between both public and private sector

What Can We do to Eradicate the Digital Divide?

We would need the following six points which must be implemented by the government:

  • Plan – A proper awareness campaign plan needs to be built for various stages and people at various demographic levels, putting more emphasis on rural areas in provinces like Limpopo, KZN and Eastern Cape.
  • Implement in the offline via online campaigns – The campaigns set up during the planning stage need to be executed in the offline space with strong visibility though powered by online campaigns.
  • Measure – We would have to continuously measure the conversion from each online campaign to choose the one which works best for offline conversion and push ahead the various options thought out for reducing the digital divide in the planning stage.
  • Execute, Measure & Repeat – A chain of executions, effectiveness measurements have to be done to reach out the entire potential audience chosen in the planning stage.
  • Policy mandates – Internet is now a utility. Like other utilities, including electricity and telephones, capital markets will saturate at 85% penetration. Policy mandates will be required to achieve full penetration. This was the case for electrification and telephones too.
  • Collective will – It is a messy problem in a sector moving at lightning speed. The digital divide is not static and the disparities it creates will continue to accelerate. Leaders from all sectors have often shied away from the complexity. Public-private will to invest in solutions must be aligned to bend the adoption curve in South Africa. That will happen when general public demands it with same groundswell and urgency that other civil rights and social equity issues have garnered. Access to the internet should be a basic human right. Computing devices and digital literacy are also key, but supplementary to affordable home internet. Sequencing for solution begins with Internet adoption.
  • The Government should be encouraging plastic cash. To bridge the digital divide, people must start using their mobile internet or cheap broadband plans to make online utility payments, and ticket bookings.

It has to be said that there has been some great effortsfrom both government and private sector to help eradicate the digital divide,the efforts have been noticed and it is not fair to blame without appreciatingwhat has been done.

To bridge the gap Cellphone companies are using these strategies and making more business.

  • Affordable prices of smart phones. Smart phones are now available for cheaper rates and hence even the poor can afford them. Case in point being cellphones like Mobicel Rebel, Nokia Asha and Vodacom Smart Kicka 4 Smartphones, both these phones have WhatsApp facility and can obviously access the internet.
  •  Competitive pricing is a major strategy.With the advent of Telkom Mobile/Rain and its low cost data and calls almost everyone in the country has started using Internet. Even otherwise, mobile network operators have started giving cheap internet packs with various offerings like 1,14 and 30 days’ data.
  • Mobile operators are increasing the level of FUP (Fair Usage policy).
  • Government through its partnership with Project iSizwe, is providing internet access to everyone. The poor, the old, schools etc. have now access to internet. The Project iSizwe initiatives aims to roll out free Wi-Fi in rural and low-income areas in South Africa. I was a beneficiary for a couple of months when I stayed in Pretoria and used the 500MB a day provided by the Tshwifi service.
  • People are being encouraged by giving coupons, gift cards, cash-back offers if they make online purchases using new concepts like SnapPay, SnapScan etc.

Closing Remarks

The affordability and humandevelopment challenge is far more difficult to solve than the infrastructuredeficit with which development banks and governments’ are preoccupied. In manycountries networks cover between 60 and 80% of the population. Yet there isless than the 20% Internet-connected critical mass required to see the networkeffects associated with economic growth and development.

Policymakers need to extend their lenses to the development of relevant local content and applications in local languages. These are all important stimulants to getting people online if South Africa hope to harness the benefits of the Internet for all their citizens.

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