SA’s ICT infrastructure holding us back from 4IR advancement in education

South Africa’s unequal distribution and roll-out of ICT infrastructure is hampering development in the education sector. Cape Town hosts AfricaCom annually, regarded as the largest networking platform focusing on infrastructure, disruptive technologies, digital services and ICT strategy, but the roll-out needs to reach the poor as well. Picture: Phando Jikelo / African News Agency (ANA)

South Africa’s unequal distribution and roll-out of ICT infrastructure is hampering development in the education sector. Cape Town hosts AfricaCom annually, regarded as the largest networking platform focusing on infrastructure, disruptive technologies, digital services and ICT strategy, but the roll-out needs to reach the poor as well. Picture: Phando Jikelo / African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 25, 2023


By Mondli Hlatshwayo and June Bam

The South African government, as well as some leading researchers and academics, have promoted the idea that the country is engulfed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

This new type of industrialisation is described generally as the increased and evolved use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in the production of new and useful knowledge, and of relevant technological skills to match growing economies. It is also useful in the creation of online learning environments in education and workplaces.

There have been both positive and negative critiques of 4IR, such as its potential negative impact on workers as manual labour becomes computerised and digitised and its positive impact on the way we work and in creating new types of work in a fast changing world to meet the production demands of our times.

But then, the question remains: How is the majority of South Africa situated in these global advancements of 4IR? The various COVID-19-lockdowns of 2020-2022 demonstrated conclusively that South Africa is falling behind in technology, particularly those developed and perfected after the 1700s’ First Industrial Revolution in Europe. For example, public transportation expanded rapidly in Europe during the 1700s, as did electric power generation and lighting engineering in the period after.

However, South Africa’s own industrial revolution only commenced around 1870 with its mineral revolution. The government still struggles significantly to provide basic rights to the majority (despite early industrialisation) – efficient transportation, safe schools, energy provision, water, sanitation, and shelter.

ICTs infrastructure access to the majority of its population is also poorly lacking. Inadequate infrastructure impacts negatively and undermines any ideal to provide access to quality and values-driven online learning for the majority (that which is non-exploitative, ethical and democratic).

With South Africa ranked among the countries with the highest unemployment rate in the world, the implications for an increasing digital divide within the country are dire.

Within this context, providing ICTs access to poor communities is simply not enough. The challenges, as we saw in universities and schools during Covid lockdowns, can be many and formidable.

They range from unaffordable data provision and difficult access to open-source software. These basic conditional provisions for the majority should be non-negotiable values to secure collective access to open online learning services for working-class communities in South Africa.

This is an urgent need if the country wants to meet its commitment to attain the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in poverty eradication.

While such values driven ICTS courses and training programmes do exist, they do become almost impossible to implement in practice in communities in the absence of the necessary basic material conditions for human dignity (housing, access to energy, safe public transport, water, sanitation, nutritious food, health).

Due to a lack of a sustainable ICT infrastructure prior to Covid-19, South Africa failed to deliver the required online learning for all levels of education during the lockdowns. This means a failure over the past 30 years since democracy to develop the appropriate and necessary values-driven (in terms of inclusivity and equal access) technological infrastructure to the benefit of the majority.

This is an indictment on the government, considering that South Africa is regarded as a highly industrialised county in Africa with astonishing accomplishments in the 2021 world rankings in communications. For instance, South Africa is ranked in the top 10 countries in the world boasting of the longest railroad track network of some 31000km.

Given its immense wealth, our country should have immense innovation potential to not only effectively alleviate poverty but to also eradicate crime to the benefit of the long suffering majority. Sadly, this is not the case.

And despite South Africa regarded as an online social media giant in the world despite, thousands of internet users in the country, particularly students from lower-income areas, are still unable to afford the daytime broadband due to exorbitant pricing.

As a result, they are forced to rely on prepaid internet packages that only allow them to connect to the internet at night. This is also an indictment to the government, especially considering the performance of other countries.

For instance, Chile, like South Africa, is in the Global South; yet, Chile has the third highest internet speed, with an average of 298.5 Mbps.

It is a travesty that out of a population of 60.14 million people, more than 22 million do not have access to the internet. According to statistics, only 1.5 million consumers had access to fibre and Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line internet connectivity at home in 2020. This means that high-speed, high-quality internet is not available to the vast majority of South Africans, who are indeed working-class communities.

The impact is also felt in education. At present, many schools and universities continue to operate a hybrid model of online and physical learning classes long after the lockdown has ended.

Statistics SA reported that only 11.7% of schools provided remote online learning during the lockdown, which was spurred by the fact that many students in working-class schools had no or very restricted access to the internet and online learning.

Despite the fact that South Africa’s democracy is approaching its 30-year anniversary, conditions for learners in rural areas have deteriorated because the majority of these communities have poor or no internet access.

This problem is often compounded by the fact that access to alternative energy sources remains a privilege only for the elite. In some poor areas load shedding and lack of access to sanitation and drinking water goes on unnoticed and unacknowledged by the state for weeks.

Load shedding causes unpredictability in learning routines and general havoc for wellbeing as learning and studies have to take place at night or in the early morning hours in especially poor rural communities and in townships. The relentless everyday distress caused by load shedding jeopardises the physical and mental health of particularly working class communities, and especially parents, teachers and their learners.

Research shows that good sleep, daily nutrition and predictable schedules at home are essentials for quality learning in gaining the basic literacies required to participate as healthy and critically informed citizens in a fast changing global world.

The performance of South Africa’s children in basic literacies (reading and math) are already of the poorest in the world; a problem which could be further exacerbated by systemic ongoing deep structural economic inequalities worsened by an unending relentless energy crisis.

Therefore, solving the energy crisis is an urgent economic and values imperative for the country as technology and innovation matter for poverty eradication through the provision of quality education for all. An example of the possible benefits that a society can gain economically through technological innovation is the use of remote spatial and sensory mapping for agricultural development by engineers to serve outlying areas and communities.

But if these new technological skills in food security (monitoring of drought stress and soil deficits etc.) are not shared equitably in a values-driven approach to education (skills training, and technological and agricultural ownership in partnership with local communities), it would result in further economic inequalities and alienation.

A values-driven 4IR and ICTs strategy and implementation model is clearly required for South Africa in an increasingly globalised world of learning and critical participation.

* The writers are professors at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (CERT), University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.