As South Africa continues to fight the spread of COVID-19 under lockdown, one of the more evident elements that this pandemic has brought to light, is the digital divide that exists in the country.

This has been proved most evident when we look at how some schools have been able to cope with their institutions being closed, and easily turning to digital education platforms to assist, while the vast majority have struggled in this regard.

Added to this, within the ICT sector, we’ve seen how well certain companies have been able to digitally transform their environments and transition easily to a remote working model, whereas others have been found wanting on this front.

These are but two of the areas highlighted during a recent webinar organised by Nedbank, EE Business Intelligence and the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University, with Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) endorsing said session.

True connectivity?

The webinar also focused on the fact that while efforts are seemingly being made to address the digital divide, millions of South Africans are negatively impacted by a severe lack of connectivity and access to necessary technology.

“The webinar, on narrowing the digital divide to provide available and affordable Internet access for all South Africans, heard that while both the public and private sector were endeavouring to close the divide; millions of people were still unable to access the digital economy, e-government services and digital education,” explained IITPSA.

“Covid-19 exposed us to some harsh realities,” noted Minister of Communications and Digital Technology, Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams, who was one of the speakers in attendance.

“As people migrated to rural areas during the lockdown, it exposed gaps. People may not have been able to access government services, and students could not access learning. Covid-19 has exposed us to the reality that we have not done much; we need to work together to connect the unconnected. We have to take broadband to where the people are,” she added.

In order to begin this process, the minister said her department was taking this into consideration as it conducted a feasibility study into SA Connect Phase 2, which is due to be completed this year.

Looking specifically at the education sector and the shortfalls there, Dr. Lucienne Abrahams, director of the Wits University LINK Centre, stated that much of the connectivity that schools in the country enjoy is “pretend internet”.

“They don’t have good enough connectivity to participate in an online course using dynamic software,” she said.

“We have to build education streaming services, we need to be able to do live streaming and asynchronous content streaming for everything from geography and maths to music and choirs – not simply for a few pages of content online,” the director continued.

Work to be done

A similar view was held by Lance Williams, executive responsible for Infrastructure at the State IT Agency (SITA).

“We have reasonable connectivity to government sites, but we need to start focusing on addressing the last mile to villages and citizens; to close the last mile gap and ensure they have access to affordable high speed broadband infrastructure and services, as well as the necessary skills to be able to effectively utilise this infrastructure. We need to have a clear and unifying strategy, plan and vision,” he stressed.

“With constrained resources, it’s more likely we will shift to shared risk models, with the government aggregating its demand to create incentives for service providers to get enabling infrastructure into deep rural areas,” Williams concluded.

While of the webinar speakers are acutely aware of the issues plaguing the country, it remains to be seen what tangible improvements will come about.

With the country’s economy suffering greatly, as well as the 2020 school year an almost write off, it is clear that South Africa is far from digitally equipped to handle the next pandemic-scale event that could hit us.

[Image – Photo by Praveen kumar Mathivanan on Unsplash]