As technology begins to influence every part of our world, it is becoming increasingly important for every human to understand its importance and benefits. Having basic skills in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can lead to improved connectivity with others and better educational and career opportunities.
Unfortunately, due to a history of inequality and exclusion, not all South Africans are able to benefit from the overall shift to a digital society. The legacy of apartheid lingers to this day, disadvantaging people in communities that were poorly developed and underfunded during the regime.
What is the digital divide?
The digital divide refers to a population split based on access to and literacy in technology. This is a global issue but is particularly rife in African countries. The COVID-19 pandemic starkly brought to light the extreme digital divide in South Africa as children were called to stay home from school and adults from work. While private and wealthier schools managed for the most part to continue teaching via the help of online resources, children in poorer communities were left behind. Important healthcare information was broadcasted via digital means, but, so were conspiracies and medical misconceptions. Discerning which information to trust required an understanding of the internet and the possibility for anyone to post information, be it true or not. Those with little guidance in navigating the Web fell prey to many of the untruths spread at the time.
A large number of jobs and educational programs are becoming increasingly digitised – a shift that was already taking place as a sign of the times and which was exacerbated by the sudden onslaught of COVID-19. It is now more important than ever to ensure that everyone has not only access to, but also receives adequate training in digital skills to play an active role in our rapidly changing economy.
What is causing our digital divide?
Several factors continue to worsen South Africa’s technological gap. Many of these are linked.
The apartheid regime implemented systems that geographically and socially distanced people of colour from job opportunities and the education and training necessary to take part in jobs that were not ‘low-skilled’. Today, many people in disadvantaged and poorer communities are still performing low-skilled jobs, which in this digital age, will eventually become obsolete. Greater skill levels are now necessary to attain a liveable income in South Africa, with the common denominator in many job requirements being basic computer literacy.
Connectivity is another issue. Without good internet access, owning a technological device has little to no benefit. Data costs are high and ICT infrastructure is weak in poorer areas, leaving people unable to upskill themselves. While technology is becoming increasingly affordable, poverty still excludes many from owning the devices needed to engage in e-learning or remote job positions.
For children entering a society that is already extremely digital, being without guidance as to how to not only use digital devices but interpret information on the internet and independently decipher digital platforms is extremely hindering. Inadequate digital training may lead to poor educational outcomes like having to repeat grades or battling to secure a place at a tertiary institution. Higher fee-paying schools now offer more advanced computer literacy classes, like coding, which put these children on the front foot at university for tech jobs of the future and those without adequate digital skills another step behind the rest.
Addressing the digital divide
Tackling South Africa’s complex digital divide requires innovation and a variety of solutions. Initiatives focused on tech for good are already making a difference in directly addressing the causes of the country’s tech literacy and access gap. Project Isizwe is on a mission to provide all Africans with uncapped, high-quality internet. With up to 22 million smartphone users in South Africa, internet access is often a missing link. Project Isizwe’s solution will give many the opportunity to unlock resources and tools available online and on mobile phones.
Low- or data-free websites are providing free, quality information regarding health and caregiving, alongside digital and educational resources for kids. E-learning schools run by foundations like The Good Work Foundation expose children in low-tech and rural communities to technology in interactive and practical ways. These schools are intended to set children up for digital requirements at university and on the job front.
Innovation Edge has backed multiple digital start-ups focused on early childhood development, like 3 Little Minutes, CareUp, Finding Thabo, Wordworks, and Hey Dad! We welcome applications from candidates with ideas to repurpose, expand, or create solutions focused on early childhood development challenges. In bridging South Africa’s digital divide. Innovation Edge supports solutions combining ECD with technological access and literacy.