A snap poll run at the start of the debate saw 42% of delegates agreeing that technology is deepening our social divide, 8% disagreeing, and 50% feeling that it is partially deepening the divide. Moderator Professor Mthunzi Mdwaba set out to discover whether panellists Gustav Praekelt of Praekelt and Dudu Mkhwanazi (former CEO of Project Isizwe) could change minds, with Praekelt arguing against the statement and Mkhwanazi argued for it.
In his opening statement, Praekelt asserted that technology improves lives, even though new technologies are initially daunting. “Generally, it has been a leveller throughout our history. Without a doubt, it allows us to provide information at the right time, in the right context, free of any favour or bias to end users,” he said. However, he qualified his statement to say that technology should be universally available to all, or the benefits will not be enjoyed by everyone. “I firmly believe it should be a basic human right, just like the right to life and liberty,” he said. “There has been a renaissance in our ability to provide information and services to end users, and provide them with the means to have the agency to improve their lives. Technology must break down barriers.”
Mdwaba later returned to the question of technology’s apparent neutrality, and Praekelt conceded that AI tools can reflect the biases of their creators. However, one should be able to distinguish the tool itself from the creator.
Mkhwanazi argued that access to technology is the largest dividing line between rich and poor in South Africa, with only about 10% of households in South Africa having access to fixed broadband (and more than 75% of those in Gauteng and the Western Cape). “Although advances have been made in the past two decades, and broadband has changed our lives for ever, we have not yet overcome the digital divide,” she said, adding that more developed metropolitan areas enjoy much greater access. “Frontier technology based on huge quantities of real-time data depends on high-speed broadband. We are increasingly data-hungry, but the cost of mobile data is a sore point for users, despite regulatory interventions over the past few months,” she said.
She pointed out that the bottom 60% of households depend on social grants rather than income, and access to technology affects the nature and composition of available jobs. In addition, young people in search of work must walk kilometres to internet cafes as they do not have fixed-line broadband, and young black entrepreneurs struggle to access the technology they may need to drive their businesses. In the education sector, black public schools have lost two terms due to an inability to access the internet. “I doubt the Department of Education will ever recover the time lost due to a lack of access,” Mkhwanazi said, adding: “The more we talk about the 4IR narrative, the larger the social divide becomes.”
Inequality and lack of access
Mdwaba suggested that the issue may be one of poor service delivery. However, Mkhwanazi said that service providers are averse to servicing townships “as internet service provision is a capital-intensive business, and to leverage such a service is a business risk, given the average monthly wage of families in townships, and yields poor return on investment”. There is perception that township dwellers are “happy to buy mobile data”, even though the long-term cost of this is higher than installing a fixed line. In addition, the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) is taking a long time to roll out projects like SA Connect, and community networks, such as Zenzeleni Bahlali iNetworks, are not being recognised and empowered.
Praekelt pointed out that the panellists were in agreement that a lack of access is the problem, rather than technology itself. “We are flipping the arrow of causation – we are not saying that it’s the technology that’s deepening the divide, but that it’s inequality causing lack of access, and lack of access is deepening our digital divide,” he said. He suggested this can be remedied by universal access to the internet and technology. He said the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) provides us with an excellent example of how this can be done, since it provides 11 million people with cash grants. “It is completely within our power to provide universal internet access to South Africans – maybe not broadband, maybe not the fastest internet access, but we can provide it to all our citizens.” He asserted that providing internet access to everyone “raises information and lifestyles and lowers inequality”.
When asked how we can get South Africa to implement this, Praekelt said, “We need to take it seriously, as a foundational right.”
How do we solve our problems and ensure that South Africa is not left behind?
Mkhwanazi argued that we need to relook public-private partnerships in SA, particularly when we have conversations about enabling technology and the low-hanging fruit of internet access. There are a number of stakeholders trying to bridge the digital divide, but “everyone is working in silos”. Once we realise that it is not government’s responsibility to bridge the divide, we can relook public-private partnerships to bring about technology empowerment.
Praekelt agreed, adding that we need collaboration between all parties, and mobile network operators should zero-rate access, and firm commitments from government departments like the Department of Trade and Industry to make internet access universally available. “We need to recognise that this is a prime driver of our ability to be both an equal society (not the most unequal in the world) and to lead globally – and I think we can,” he concluded.
The final poll result indicated that 60% of the delegates felt that technology is only deepening the digital divide, as against 40% who said it was not, which suggests that some of the structural issues we face as a country are bedevilling our attempts to harness technology for all our citizens.
Article was written by FionaZerbst