I’m usually a person who can spot a PR campaign a mile away.

Whether they’re garish adverts or masquerading as genuine interest from an individual or group, I can spot them and I generally steer clear. But, I must admit, I fell hard for radio personality, Thabo “Tbo Touch” Molefe’s #DataMustFall campaign.

In September, Molefe started talking on his online radio show about how expensive mobile data in South Africa is and how the majority of citizens simply can’t afford it – thus #DataMustFall was born.

The concept of the price of mobile data and general access to communication tools has been around for years. But never had the conversation gone beyond barely-known campaigns by civil society groups and promises from government.

But, in just one September afternoon, Molefe (who’s star power and way with words no doubt helped a lot) managed to rally many around the country behind one cause.

Never before had a mega celebrity (his show on Metro FM was one of the highest rated in the industry) thrown their wight behind the struggle for affordable internet communications. Not to mention the impact of the emotive promises and demands tweeted from Molefe’s account and retweeted by hundreds. It all seemed pretty and so, ordinary citizens and even other celebs and political figures showed their support for #DataMustFall and Molefe.

The main objective behind the campaign – or so it seemed – was to get mobile networks to lower their data prices or users would boycott them. So serious this matter was, that Molefe and his controversial colleague, Gareth Cliff, put together a presentation to submit in parliament, along with other stakeholders arguing for government to act on the call (if you’re still skeptical about the campaign at this point, I’ll give you credit for stellar discernment).

The parliament shindig was scheduled long before #DataMustFall started, so it does seem a little too convenient that the campaign was launched just before this took place.

Fast forward sometime after the appearance in parliament, South Africans were told Molefe has had “talks” with mobile network and that something big was coming.

That “something big” was announced ten days ago, 18th November (note the hype around it)

 

After all that hype, is THIS what the price of data falling meant? Free ToucCentralFM (the station Molefe and Cliff co-own) and all other features for R800? If ever there was a practical way to describe the elitism in the cost to communicate the world over, this would be a good example.

Let me explain.

The poor suffer the most

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an initiative by the World Wide Web Foundation established by Web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, which had also made a presentation alongside Molefe and others in parliament, have a number interesting facts and arguments on how pricey communication costs affect the poor the most.

According to A4AI’s annual Affordability Drivers Index (ADI), which includes 51 countries around the globe, South Africa ranked 19th out of 51 countries on the ADI, and sixth amongst African countries in 2015.

Countries such as Rwanda and Nigeria outranked South Africa. This indicates that South Africa is lagging behind many peers, and that further policy interventions may be needed.

The index uses the UN’s Broadband Commission  affordability target (500MB of data should cost no more than 5% of households’ monthly incomes) to measure affordability in each country.

“At first glance, South Africa seems to meet this measure comfortably, with 500MBs of data priced at around 1.48% of monthly incomes. However, as in many other nations, income inequality skews this picture, as A4AI’s 2015-16 Affordability Report shows. Average income (as measured by GNI per capita in 2014) was $ 6 790, but 60% of the population actually earn less than half of that amount. In practice, this means that a seemingly affordable mobile internet connection (1.48% of “average” monthly income) actually costs the majority of South Africans anywhere between 6-19% of their income,” the alliance said.

So clearly, the fall in data prices would benefit the poor the most, not those who can comfortably afford to spend hundreds of rands on data every month.

So how on earth is an R800 monthly contract supposed to benefit the majority of the population in rural areas and townships, who already have almost no access to free internet via public schools and libraries and have to dig into their already meagre pockets to pay for data?

In response to criticism from people like myself, Molefe declared that we’d jumped the gun and that “more was still on the way” (at this point it felt like a Verimark commercial).

Today, he announced another package and a deal with Vodacom.

 

At this point, I have no more faith in the PR stunt to get TouchCentralFM outh there campaign and the hope that it can really affect change.

First of all, prepaid is still, by far, the most common payment option among South Africans at 84% of mobile connections and according to the World Bank, there are 12 million adults in South Africa without an account at a bank or other financial institution, and millions more who have poor access to formal financial services.

According to Statistics South Africa, over 50% of the people in this country are barely getting by with under R800 a month to support themselves (this is per individual, not total household occupants).

So you’re already leaving out millions who cannot easily open a post-paid contract.

Now if the average poor person over 18 (this is another in parading contracts as a solution – it leaves teens, among the highest mobile data users – without the ability to apply for a contract) doesn’t even have R1 000 a month to take care of themselves, how are they expected to pay for R149 or R899 contract?

Secondly, MTN has been offering similar contract packages for eons, so it’s not exactly a revolutionary step on their part.

screenshot-22

Essentially, what #DataMustFall has turned out to be a PR campaign that gained favour from the public and then used that favour to benefit a radio station. It may have started with good intentions, but data most certainly hasn’t fallen.