Wi-fi should become a service delivery issue as it has enormous potential to change lives, says Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.
Pretoria - I was happy to hear mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa say that though Tshwane’s Bus Rapid Transport system will arrive later than Joburg’s and Cape Town’s, at least it would have free wi-fi.
It is a big deal. It’s about time wi-fi became a service delivery issue in the same way water and electricity are.
It is an indictment on our political parties that of all the lofty promises they have made, they have said nothing about providing free wi-fi, or at least ensuring that all public schools have access.
It cannot be left to telecommunications companies, which charge prices that are, in truth, not just a barrier to internet access but to everyone having access to new knowledge and thus making better decisions and improving their lives.
The bitter spat between the telecommunications companies is yet another indicator that they will do everything in their power to maximise profits – not a bad thing in itself, except if they prolong ignorance and cruelly exploit those who seek to light a candle in the darkness.
Only an idiot would still need to be convinced of the internet’s potential to change every aspect of life.
For the purpose of this column, I will limit it to the relationship between the internet and knowledge.
There are universities all over the world that offer free online courses. One of them is Harvard.
In South Africa, where millions of young people roam the streets aimlessly and those who have the brains to access higher education are prevented from doing so by lack of funds or space at varsities, online education offers the real possibility of getting them out of the inter-generational rut in which they find themselves.
When you have neither free wi-fi nor free education, you consign the poor to the margins and perpetuate the myth that being poor is equal to being stupid.
In the information age, internet connectivity can be the difference between being in stuck in dark ages or competing with other nations.
In case you think my reference to medieval times is far-fetched, consider that on the same week that a satellite returned the first close-up pictures of Mars, it was reported that villagers in a remote part of Kenya had massacred each other over grazing land.
The Kenyan conflict was a clear indicator of how far behind Africa is in the realms of knowledge and science.
We can moan all we want about how Europe retarded Africa’s development, and we might be right. But it is now in the hands of Africans to get themselves on board and start ensuring that what makes news is new and exciting, instead of it being of ancient rivalries – as was the case in Kenya.
One way of doing that is making the internet a force for collective good.
President Jacob Zuma himself alluded, perhaps unintentionally, to the gap that comes with not having access to useful information when he said the people of Nkandla would not have access to the Government Gazette and therefore did not know about the time frames for land restitution processes.
The people of Nkandla might not have the gazette delivered to their doorsteps, but if they have a smartphone and easy access to the internet, they, too, can know whether they should lodge a claim for their land and how to go about it.
Wi-fi access is thus the great equaliser, and a vital tool for the democratisation of knowledge and society.
We have such a long history of exclusion that it is possible that some believe that all things should be available to certain people only.
Even among those blacks outraged by their political exclusion, there were those who believed that educated blacks deserved a better deal than other “natives”.
Such thinking must stop.
No society was ever harmed by having on aggregate more knowledgeable people than before.
Yes, it might not be the preferable and profitable thing for the business and political elites to keep populations ignorant, but it is the best investment a country can make for its future.
Naturally, there will be arguments that we must focus on bricks and mortar stuff before we even start to think about wi-fi rollout.
But imagine how easily the problem of undelivered textbooks is answered by the availability of wi-fi, and the money saved because you do not need trucks to send them. Besides, once people have access to knowledge and education, they can do a lot more for themselves instead of waiting for the government to deliver.
Governments always find money for projects they believe are important. World Cup stadiums were built in record time and the construction company cartels were paid their billions because it was important for the state to impress the world.
If the state wants everyone to have access to wi-fi, then it can make it happen.
It just needs the political will.
* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is executive editor of the Pretoria News