Internet in SA

Reshaping the Future of the South African Web

My name is Xola dos Santos and I am the director of the technology start-up called xdode.com. Today I want to provide a brief history of the web and then discuss five South African organisations using creative initiatives to bridge the digital divide during COVID-19.

There has been much talk in the media recently about the future direction of the Web in SA given how businesses are increasingly dependent on internet technologies to sustain their organisations during COVID-19. We have also seen workers who are not compatible with the new “digital”, decentralised business model being forced into joblessness as companies retrench staff during the lockdown.

Trade unions in South Africa continue to support workers in organising against job cuts, whilst managers argue that costs for staff, equipment, plant and creditors need to be reduced in order to reduce risk, with data science and software development bootcamps like We Think Code seeing a surge in applications as workers look to upskill. Cell C recently announced that it has entered into talks to retrench up to 960 staff of mainly junior management and semi-skilled employees.

So, many are legitimately critical of the cultural implications of the new “digital”, highly integrated South African society created by the internet, but how did we get here?

The Evolution of the Internet in South Africa

The birth of the internet in South Africa can be traced back to 1988 when researchers from Rhodes University established a link to the Internet in order to connect university sites in South Africa to the world.

The early internet, coined Web 1.0, restricted a user to simply consuming information through a web browser. Web 2.0 represents the second major milestone in the evolution of the web and introduced dynamic websites that allowed users to contribute to the web by uploading media, posting and commenting on sites etc. User accounts became a huge part of Web 2.0 in the early 2000s as they allow companies to identify users and serve personalised experiences based on data collected over time.

Five SA Initiatives Working to Bridge the “Digital Divide”

There is a meme making the rounds on social media where WIFI is declared the most important component in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This meme has gained popularity because South African’s understand that in principle everyone should have equal access to the internet, particularly given South Africa’s historical context, that is not the case, however. There are a few mentionable public and private companies doing a great job at trying to bridge the “digital divide” by promoting access to the web. Here are some of my favourite initiatives:

1. Telkom and MTN offer zero-rated online learning websites and free data.

Sandisiwe Shoba ask the question, ”Are mobile network providers doing enough to keep South Africans connected?” in a recent Daily Maverick article. The initiatives by Telkom and MTN will go a long way to mitigating the effects of COVID-19 on remote learning participants, as we shelter safely in our homes and practise social distancing. Other telecoms companies have been slow to offer free bundles and Wi-Fi. 

2. SA Government Corona Website Dashboard

The COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) Data Repository for SA is a collection of data on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in Africa. The repository is linked to the WHO database of publications on coronavirus disease. This was created, maintained and hosted by the Data Science for Social Impact research group, led by Dr. Vukosi Marivate, at the University of Pretoria.

3. OpenUp Builds Digital Tools to Promote Active Citizenry

OpenUp is a great non-profit that builds free tools in order to promote access to the South African government data. You can access their toolbox of free data tools through their website. Their mission is to support projects that remove barriers preventing access to government information in order to improve the domestic and global community.

Young South Africans must lead in the innovation, and creation of new ideas to lead the post-COVID-19 recovery.

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Source: TimesLive

4. Feenix CapTheGap Campaign

The #CapTheGap campaign is an initiative by Standard Bank where the Feenix organisation is fundraising and connecting with investors looking to sponsor projects to remove barriers to education in South Africa. They do this through crowdfunding campaigns. Feenix is working closely with universities to identify students who lack digital access, focusing on those in their final year as well as those in postgraduate studies.

5. Rain offers fast 5G internet access at rates as at low as R50/GB

In their latest product offering South Africa’s youngest telecoms company, Rain, is giving customers an opportunity to get access to the internet at rates as low as R50 per gigabyte and you only have to pay for the data you use at the end of the month. The fall of data prices is incredibly important in the effort to allows students and workers to access the internet.

Web 3.0: The Next Generation of Internet Technologies

Web 3.0 is the third generation of internet technologies that will enable a truly Peer-to-Peer distributed web, allowing users to browse the web securely and anonymously, through networks that are not dependant on central Data Monopolies that decipher and analyse user data. Amazon, Apple and Facebook are popular examples of corporations that have been especially efficient in harvesting user data in order to establish dominant market positions. I have discussed how emerging Web 3.0 tech will lead to systematic changes in the practice of digital marketing and surveillance in a previous post.  

On the other hand, the organisations I listed, and many more, are working hard to bridge the digital divide in South Africa. What challenges have you had accessing the web? How do you protect your user data online and browse the internet anonymously?

Let me hear what you have to say in the comment section below and don’t forget to subscribe to my blog xdode.com/subscribe/