For The People

Lockdown exposes the digital divide

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we do things and will probably leave a permanent scar that will force us to reconsider normality as we know it.

Due to the regulations such as social distancing, closure of certain businesses, government department and institutions, online or digital options have been punted to access services. Most government offices such as Labour Centres and Social Security Agency (SASSA) remain closed due to the lockdown regulations thus expecting applicants to use digital platforms to apply for benefits. With internet shops closed, most potential beneficiaries of the special COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRDG) will be unable to apply or will find it difficult to apply. Applications for the R350 a month for next 6 months will result in the army of the unemployed rushing to internet shops if these open under Level-4 of the lockdown regulations or using family and friends’ smartphones. According to STATSSA, 29, 1 % or 6.726 million individuals are unemployed of which approximately 123 000 are in the Northern Cape.

Unlike the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) Covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS), where employers apply on behalf of their employees, potential beneficiaries of the SRDG will have to apply for themselves. To access the government’s COVID-19 information, you need a data connection and a smartphone. The high cost of data, lack of infrastructure and the price of devices are the main reasons why the majority of South Africans cannot access digital services. South Africa is currently ranked 19th out of 49 African countries on RIA’s Africa Mobile Pricing (RAMP) index in terms of data pricing.

Some tertiary learning institutions have started with online teaching, but had to provide hardware (devices) to students. They soon realised that many do not have access due to the lack of infrastructure. The reality is that many South Africans do not have access to digital services such as the internet or even a smartphone. As one of the most unequal countries in the world, digital services are not a priority for the poor when the next meal is not guaranteed and basic services are not available. As a result, many of the potential beneficiaries won’t be able to apply unless the offices of SASSA are open and they apply in person, which is a risk in terms of the lockdown regulations and may cause a spike in infections. Equally so, the re-opening of schools will expose hundreds of thousands of learners to the virus since social distancing and other regulations would be difficult, if not impossible to implement. Online teaching would have been a very good alternative, but once again the vast majority of learners and their families do not have access to digital services as a consequence of their income, where they reside and how digitally literate they are.

The digital divide, which can be described as the gap between those who have access to digital services and those who don’t, is growing despite the availability of more digital services. According to ResearchICTAfrica.net, South Africa is a good example of a policy paradox: “as more people are connected and can access more information and services, at higher speeds than ever before, digital inequality is being amplified, not reduced.”  The digital divide exists between the rich and the poor; rural and urban; digital literate and digital illiterate.  On the contrary, digital literacy is easy to overcome as has been proven by the youth’s seamless adaption to new technologies. The currently unregulated over- the- top (OTT) applications like WhatsApp requires a data connection, which can only be accessed via a data enabled device and provided data is accessible. These OTT applications are being used by millions of South Africans for everyday communication needs.

The indecisiveness of government in terms of digital related policies has come at a huge cost to South Africans while operators have been filling their coffers unashamedly.  This lockdown has stressed the need for access to free data services (limited) for basic communication services. Level-4 of the lock down will allow for online purchases of certain products and for ordering your favourite take away like Chicken Licken. Once again, the majority will be excluded due to the digital divide. While the governing party has developed good digital policies, implementation on the side of government is non-existent. The obstacles for government on the other hand are the companies in the sector that are very powerful financially and legally; lack of capacity to implement; a weak regulator; slow structural changes; lack of high demand spectrum and generally pushing information and communication services as non-priority.

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