Linda Fekisi

[intro]April is a month for celebrating freedom, and taking a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come since those long voting lines in 1994 made local and international headlines, a moment that allowed South Africans to re-imagine their country. The Journalist’s Linda Fekisi considers what ‘freedom’ means in the digital age, the great divide in online access and the possibility of a nationwide Internet rollout.[/intro]

Two-thirds of South Africans have no access to internet. This means that 35 million people are excluded from a modern facility that can help them improve their lives. A recent World Bank study showed that there is a clear correlation between Internet access and GDP growth. When Internet access was increased to 10% for any population, there was also a 1.38% increase in GDP that went along with it.

Communications Studies Professor Toks Oyedemi, based at the University of Limpopo, wrote a paper arguing that citizens need access to information in order to participate effectively in all spheres of the society; and a lack of Internet access not only disadvantages millions, but is in fact contrary to basic rights in the digital age.

In his article published in Citizenship Studies Oyedemi argued that “if information is important for effective participation, access to the technologies that provide this information is equally essential…The Internet has developed into a prominent platform for citizens to gain access to information on many issues in society. It does not only provide access to information, it is also a space where activities in many sectors of society actually take place.”

Oyedemi also emphasised the importance of technology in society and the consequences of unequal access to information.

If access to this technology is important for participation in society, it raises serious concerns for the experience of citizenship if certain groups of people have access to this technology and other groups do not,” he writes, before delving into the vital role that information can play when it comes to citizenship and the ‘foundation of rights’.

Project Isizwe Petitions

The Internet expands the possibilities for citizens to gain access to information and participate in society through digital means. From human and civil rights perspectives, the lack of access to a technology that enhances participation in society compromises citizenship,” wrote Oyedemi.

His argument is also rooted in the Bill of Rights including the right to freedom of expression, the freedom to receive and impart information as well as the right to access information.

It is important to recognise access to ICTs as essential in making the freedom to receive and impart information possible. The right of access to communication technologies, such as the Internet, is very important because the externalities from the Internet can advance other rights listed in the Bill of Rights,” wrote Oyedemi.

Oyedemi is one of many academics who have delved into the link between Internet access and economic progress, not only for the individual, but wider society, including growth in job opportunities, improved service delivery and an increase in GDP; and one non-profit organisation is looking to bridge the divide and fight towards access for all.

Project Isizwe, a non-profit organisation that was founded by South African entrepreneur and author, Alan Knott-Craig Jr in 2012, launched an online petition in a bid to bridge the digital divide in South Africa by facilitating the roll-out of free Wi-Fi in public spaces in low income communities across the country. The petition was launched on 18 March and thus far has more than 3,500 signatures.

Project Isiziwe’s Marketing Manager, Peter Adolphs, has also attested to ways in which Internet access is beneficial to the economy including meeting education needs, business demands and employment requirements.

Access to free Wi-Fi gives job applicants a far greater chance of finding a job than those who don’t. Imagine having to distribute your CV with no Internet, going door to door after spending a whole lot of money on printing and transport,” said Adolphs.

The same applies to children having educational information access via the Internet, they obviously get a distinct advantage over those who don’t have access. From a business perspective a business today is far more likely to succeed with the opportunities afforded to it by having Internet access.”

Despite this prevalent digital divide, South Africa ranks above world average when it comes to access to the Internet. Three of our cities, Tshwane, Cape Town and Stellenbosch, have Wi-Fi in public spaces.

Adolphs attributes this to our country’s broad cellular network but also adds how affordability is a factor. “We are seriously lacking in [the] affordability of the data which sees about two thirds of our population not being able to afford to get basic access,” he said. “It is all about digital equality within South Africa and the continent, everyone should have the right to equal opportunity and this is the most important reason for free Wi-Fi”.

The importance of this right has also been recognised by the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services by means of the South African broadband policy, South Africa Connect.

Follow @projectisizwe for more on their project.