Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

SA has a huge ‘digital blind spot’ and it’s holding us all back

By Catherine Croxton and Nomvula Buthelezi 4 February 2021

(Photo: atd-uk.org / Wikipedia)

Using the internet, sending emails and googling information are skills so innate to the digitally fluent that they don’t realise they have them and don’t know that most South Africans lack them. And those excluded from digital citizenship are not aware of the benefits it could bring.

Catherine Croxton and Nomvula Buthelezi

The world has been connected to the internet for years. We are now digitally fluent and take these skills and tools for granted. We also assume almost everyone we interact with is digitally fluent. However, only a small minority of the South African population has been exposed to technology and its many wonderful benefits. We as “privileged” citizens are blind to this, while many people are blind to the power of the internet and how to use it. 

How do we tackle this digital blind spot?

Opportunities to learn about digital at grassroots level need to be accessible to the majority on a massive scale. These opportunities need to be fun and easy to do, and designed for people who do not have computers at home and with limited educational experience. The government, industry and training organisations should review how they approach the issue of digital exclusion and reach out to the “unseen” and “unheard”.

A common conversation in South Africa is how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming our society. It is happening already – the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2022 about 60% of global GDP will be “digitised”. And this shift is speeding up fast. 

The question for South Africa is: who will benefit from this transformation? Many in our society, already struggling with many disadvantages, are being left behind. 

Readers of this article are probably doing so quite comfortably on their desktop PCs, laptops or smartphones, using various apps and programs for work and play. Because we take these skills for granted, we tend to assume others do. 

Can you imagine what it must be like to have never used these tools? Or even to be unaware that you’re using the internet when you send a WhatsApp message or look at a Facebook post? But that’s the reality for a large number of people. 

“What’s Google?” is a common question at our centres

You probably either grew up with digital devices and the internet or absorbed the skills over years through osmosis and the occasional helping hand. You can be described as a “digital explorer” who is fairly confident to use the apps on your phone or laptop, is happy to learn and play, is critical of some of the things you see and, to some degree at least, is aware of the potential risks. In short, for many of us, there is a sense of belonging and comfort associated with digital use that is sometimes referred to as digital citizenship.

You are significantly more skilled than you realise 

Research by Mozilla, the non-profit behind the Firefox web browser, found there are at least 53 digital skills new mobile internet users need to master to do many things we take for granted – communicate, search, download apps, manage finances, maintain a working device and stay secure. Things many of us do without thinking, but which are completely unknown to most South Africans.

Only a little more than 50% of the population is connected to the internet, with 36.5 million having some sort of internet connectivity and most (more than 31 million) getting their internet connection from a mobile device. This leaves 23 million unconnected. 

There is also a mindset problem: 35% of South Africans do not believe the internet is relevant to them, which shows a huge gap in understanding the world they live in

Close to 95% of those aged between 16 and 65 now have a smartphone. To many casual observers this level of smartphone penetration equals a skilled ability to use the internet, but our experience on the ground challenges this assumption. 

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Only three out of 10 South Africans have an email address and many who do have one, do not know how to use it. The chances are that if you see someone using a smartphone they are only using it for WhatsApp, Facebook or watching movies.

In addition, only one in 10 households in South Africa has a computer and we already know the vast majority of internet connections are mobile based. Furthermore, children are not learning it at school. Out of 25,000 schools in South Africa, in 2019 only 6,949 were connected to the internet

The country is awash in computer courses that teach everything from Microsoft Office to coding. However, they usually cost money and people will make significant financial sacrifices if they think a course will get them a job. But how do you practise what you’ve learnt without a computer at home? How do you even apply for the job without email or the ability to send one?

The building blocks of understanding

In addition, these courses assume a certain amount of prior knowledge and miss the important building blocks of understanding. They put people in front of computers and expect them to understand what can be done on them.

It is the same as putting a book in the hands of someone who cannot read. You have to start with A, B and C so they can recognise the letters and start to decode the words. It is well known in reading literacy that merely teaching basic reading does not embed fluent reading if there are no books in the home. As for reading as a gateway to further skills – this only works if you have sufficient basic literacy to be able to read for comprehension. 

There is also very little focus on the importance of managing digital presence and footprint. The internet is not 100% safe. People need to be aware of the power of digital, as well as its potential dangers and risks. Do you really want photos of yourself, inebriated at a party, or of your four-year-old daughter, visible to the public? 

This widespread lack of digital literacy is a barrier to employability and the growth of our economy. For example, building township entrepreneurs is frequently touted as a route to reduce poverty and increase job opportunities. 

Yet, recent research by University of Johannesburg academics indicates that these same small businesses are woefully underskilled and underresourced when it comes to using digital technologies of any sort. Only 14% used a laptop and fewer than 5% used social media to build their business or communicate with customers. And although nearly half used a smartphone for business purposes, many of the others also owned smartphones, but believed they were only for personal use.

Digital transformation for the majority will never happen in South Africa unless the focus shifts to providing young and old with the basic skills to join the digital revolution. This training needs to happen on the devices at their fingertips. 

We face economic marginalisation on a scale that we are all – the digitally included and excluded – completely blind to.

The challenges we face due to Covid-19 exacerbate this. In a report published in December 2020, the World Economic Forum declared digital skills one of the key components to Covid-19 economic resilience. No wonder South Africa is struggling. 

We need to help millions to feel comfortable with the basics of digital technologies and recognise that they work for them too. We need to build a sense of digital citizenship along with the basic skills and understanding needed to live and work in an increasingly digital world. This will allow large numbers of the digitally excluded to build the confidence to be active players in our transforming economy. Merely teaching thousands to use Microsoft Word on a computer is not the answer.

Next time you see someone tapping away on their smartphone, stop and think. With 80% of South Africans struggling with digital, maybe that person is not using it quite as you imagined. Let’s shine a light on this digital blind spot as it is holding our people and country back. Let’s not be the blind leading the blind. DM/MC

Catherine Croxton is the director of SHARP Digital, a South African non-profit committed to turning the tide on the digital divide. It provides free mobile-based “learning by doing” experiences, builds awareness of the “digital blind spot” and conducts research. 

Nomvula Buthelezi is an independent human resources practitioner, public speaker, storyteller, mentor and coach.

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  • As in many countries, SA govt should provide free wifi internet connection in as many places as possible. The cost is inconsequential against the benefits it will bring by making our entire population more digitally literate.

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