“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”
– William Ford Gibson, sometime in the early 1990s
We have entered a new era of human history, what some have called the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. This is an age characterised by rapid and wide-reaching technological innovations, including robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and self-driving cars. These innovations will profoundly reshape the way we live, work and interact with each other.
It is difficult to accurately predict the long-term implications of this rapid transformation but several things are already clear. These changes will have wide-reaching ‘ripple effects’, both positive and negative. On the upside, these changes promise to increase the efficiency of communication, production, and management, and drive economic growth. The downside, however, is their potential to disrupt almost every industry and cause greater levels of unemployment and inequality.
In the case of South Africa, the unequal distribution of these advances intensifies a stark digital divide. It doesn’t take much to see that internet access, education, skilled-employment and technological innovation are stratified along class and racial lines, thus reinforcing apartheid-era inequality.
Aerial image, taken by photographer Johnny Miller, of wealthy Primrose on the left and the informal settlement of Makause on the right. A version of this image made it to the cover of Time magazine, entitled “The World’s Most Unequal Country” in May 2019
A notable indicator of change is the rapid increase in internet connectivity, both locally and globally. As of January 2018, over half the world’s population is now online, reaching 4.39 billion users as of January 2019. These figures are growing by an average of over a million new users a day! Mobile internet users are likewise increasing, numbering 5.11 billion unique users in January 2019. This is an increase of 100 million mobile users since 2018!
Images from Hootsuite and We Are Social 2019 Digital Report
Internet penetration in Southern Africa is also on the rise, and as of January 2018 was at 51%. Passing the halfway mark is notable, however, this also means that almost half the population is still without internet connection. These impressive figures point towards a “digital divide” between those with and without internet connection.
Image from Hootsuite and We Are Social 2018 Digital Report
Increasingly we are seeing the automation of ‘low-skilled’ and manual jobs. This is because machines are able to do these tasks faster, cheaper, and with more precision and efficiency than humans. Simply put, machines are better than humans at executing repetitive and predictable tasks.
In South Africa, we have high levels of unemployment and a large proportion of the population considered “low-skilled” labour. In the next seven years, 5.7-million jobs in South Africa will be digitally automated. By 2030, machines will be working around 800-million jobs globally that humans formerly held.
With this increasing automation, we will see a growing demand for “skilled-labour” and declining demand for “low-skilled” labour. We can thus expect mass displacement and increasing unemployment of low-skilled workers, and a corresponding under-supply of skilled labour locally.
As one of the most unequal societies in the world, many historically disadvantaged South Africans still experience an overwhelming lack of access to basic services, skills training, and employment opportunities. Moreover, a digital divide exists not just between those people with and without internet access. A divide also exists between those with digital literacy skills, the ability to produce content online, and the financial resources for optimal internet usage, and those without these.
Access to digital skills as well as affordable and quality internet coverage remains unevenly distributed in South Africa. Higher-income young people are able to get a good education and increase their skills for the digital future. However, each year thousands of lower-income young South Africans leave schools without even basic digital literacy. If predictions of decreasing demand for low-skilled labour are anything to go by, this is a valid cause of concern.
A decrease in low-skill jobs is not necessarily a bad thing, however, if our workforce is able to adapt and upskill accordingly. South Africa’s high levels of unemployment and lack of viable skills for future employability spell out an urgent need for change.
It is vital that South Africa takes measures to adapt to the fast pace of these developments and prepare ourselves for the implications they bring. South Africans need urgent digital skills training in order to keep pace with these changes. We need to learn to work with machines and new technologies, rather than being rendered useless by them.
While governmental bodies should do their part, local NGOs and NPOs also have a part to play in tackling the digital divide in the areas in which we work. This imperative drives a fair bit of the work VPUU’s ICT4D workstream, in particular, does in low-income and informal settlements.
We provide free Wi-Fi at our offices in Lotus Park in Gugulethu and Harare Square in Khayelitsha. This Wi-Fi supports the work we do and strengthens communication across different locations. It is also popular amongst locals with Lotus Park reaching over 500 unique users a week and Harare reaching over 1000 unique users a week.
It is especially important to create opportunities for township youth to increase their digital literacy, should they wish. To this end, we have hosted various computer information workshops and hackathons in low-income areas, such as Monwabisi Park and Harare Square.
Another great way to progressively tackle the digital divide is through locally run community networks in low-income and largely un-connected areas. Organisations such as Zenzeleni.net and iNethi have already done some great work in this area, but this is not nearly enough. Inspired by these great initiatives, we have begun erecting the backbone of our own community network. Initially, this will work to better connect our offices and support the work we’re doing on the Cape Flats. However, the long-term vision of this initiative is to set up a local ISP which will provide a viable and affordable internet connection to low-income areas at a fraction of the price of commercial data prices.