This is not an ordinary article — it is an appeal, a prayer, that I am hoping all those affected will join. If we pray hard and loud enough, with conviction and faith, those in the right places are bound to hear us and God will certainly answer our prayers.
Information is no longer a luxury; it is an imperative, an integral part of life — and the internet has assumed a pivotal role in providing information. Much as economic infrastructure and quality roads are an essential catalyst for trade and development, so too is information.
The highway network is a facilitator and enabler for the efficient movement of essential goods and services. In much the same way, the internet is an information superhighway for communication, as well as the resolution of many of humankind's problems.
Information dissemination is an integral part of education, which is an essential component of the liberation of humans from the bondage of ignorance. Unfortunately, this repository of information comes at a discriminatory cost, which limits its accessibility.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Is the situation in South Africa — and indeed, the rest of Africa — aligned to this declaration?
According to Indra de Lanerolle from Wits University, the high cost of data contributes to inequalities among South Africans, with lower-income households benefiting the least.
Here are some disturbing statistics for South Africa:
- South Africa has the second-highest cost of data after Brazil, among a select group of seven countries that includes BRICS members Brazil, Russia, India and China, according to a study by Tariffic prompted by the local #DataMustFall trend.
- Data prices for South Africa were on average 134 percent more expensive than the cheapest prices in the group, the same study added.
- Data costs are higher in South Africa than those in neighbouring countries like Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho, where South Africa's major communications operators are also active.
- South Africa has the highest data costs among Africa's biggest economies, and this may be hampering investment.
- Data costs are six times more expensive in South Africa than in Egypt.
- According to Indra de Lanerolle from Wits University, the high cost of data contributes to inequalities among South Africans, with lower-income households benefiting the least.
- Consumers who are purchasing small data bundles at a time or using data 'out of bundle' may be paying 50 times what richer consumers are paying on contracts, according to Amandla.mobi.
- According to Internet World Stats, Africa had an internet penetration rate of 35.2 percent, representing only 10.9 percent of total world internet users as of December 31 2017. South Africa's penetration rate is 53.7 percent.
- Only 12 African countries have a penetration rate exceeding 50 percent, led by Kenya (85 percent), Tunisia (67.7 percent) Mali (65.3 percent) and Morocco (62.4 percent), based on data from Internet World Stats.
The question needs to be asked whether governments and corporates in the developing world generally – and Africa in particular – are showing enough commitment to making internet more accessible to the poor.
There seems to be an unrealistic presumption of accessibility of the internet in South Africa. Schools and the department of education are increasingly encouraging online applications, schools and colleges assume internet accessibility for assignments, consumers are expected to benefit from online applications which require internet access, and so do jobseekers.
An aggressive rollout of free Wi-Fi hotspots around public libraries would help in this regard. Online shopping has taken off, but has not necessarily benefited the poor, who still incur commuting costs to go shopping.
Access to information and knowledge determines who we become in life. A young learner becomes a teacher, a doctor or an engineer by acquiring the relevant knowledge. Knowledge that is inaccessible does nothing to convert potential into reality. What use is potential to a young man or woman who lives to the age of 90 without realising their potential? It is a waste of intellectual capital.
Imagine where this country could be if every child's potential, across the racial divide, had been enhanced over the past 50 years. The unfortunate reality is that economic inequality is a direct result of people not starting from the same starting blocks. Those starting ahead of others have an unfair advantage.
Given the importance of the internet in education and other facets of life, as well as the freedom of opinion and expression in accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the question needs to be asked whether governments and corporates in the developing world generally — and Africa in particular — are showing enough commitment to making internet more accessible to the poor.
Are governments doing enough from a policy and regulatory point of view to open up space for competition? Are corporate social responsibility programmes responsible enough? On closer analysis, some of their actions or inactions may actually be contributing to the perpetuation of the plight of the poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable. That these groups continue to be excluded is a travesty of justice.
Are the CEOs and boards of Cell C, MTN, Telkom and Vodacom doing enough to contribute to the realisation of the potential of poor rural children through education, by making data not only accessible but also affordable?
Considering that economists around the world have identified small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as the biggest contributor to economic growth, employment and redistribution, lack of internet penetration or the cost thereof remain a stumbling block and an inhibiting factor to the profitability that small businesses badly need for organic growth.
Given these facts, one has to ask the CEOs and boards of Cell C, MTN, Telkom and Vodacom whether they are doing enough to contribute to the realisation of the potential of poor rural children through education, by making data not only accessible but also affordable.
These are the same corporates that sponsor everything else there is to sponsor in the market. The same question has to be asked of the Ministers of Finance, Communications and Education —whether sufficient resources are being allocated to this purpose.
A call also has to be made on President Ramaphosa, to nudge his former colleagues in business and whisper in their ears to do the right thing.
After all the protests, the hashtags, the persuasion, the enquiries and hearings, when all else fails, we are left with the only option: prayer.
Lord, give us this day our daily data we pray!