Learning via the internet has exposed the digital divide between students who have access to hardware and stable internet connections and those who struggle with both. File picture: Sakhile Ndlazi/African News Agency/ANA
Learning via the internet has exposed the digital divide between students who have access to hardware and stable internet connections and those who struggle with both. File picture: Sakhile Ndlazi/African News Agency/ANA

Everything the state plans from now on must factor in Internet access as a bare minimum

By Opinion Time of article published Feb 8, 2021

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By Lucky Masilela

One would hope that in making plans for 2021, a robust and effective ICT infrastructure was a big- ticket item for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Department of Higher Education (DHE).

The amount of learning and teaching time lost in 2020 as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be regained but should not be lost again in 2021. But the only guarantee against accumulating any additional backlog is to prioritise Internet connectivity and affordable data.

What the pandemic taught the world was that our lives can be disrupted without too much warning.

The other lesson was that such disruptions can last longer than originally anticipated. This unpredictability of the disruption, in timing and duration, make it imperative to adapt every infrastructure involved in the delivery of social services.

Learners in ordinary schools, 12 million plus, constitute 20 percent of the South African population.

Students at higher and other education institutions add up to nearly a million. There are over 400,000 teachers and thousands of officials from the DBE at district, provincial and national levels.

The point is the lockdown due to the pandemic impedes the normal functioning of a substantial proportion of the country’s population. This is destructive to the economic and social justice in South Africa.

South Africa’s human development index (HDI) value for 2019 was 0.709, positioning the country in the high human development category, ranked 114 th out of 189 countries and territories compared in the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2020.

This report shows that between 1990 and 2019, South Africa’s HDI value rose from 0.627 to 0.709. This signifies progress in life expectancy (up by 0.8 years), mean years of schooling (better by 3.8 years) and in the expected years of schooling (which increased by 2.4 years) against the backdrop of GNI per capita rising by 21.6 percent.

Covid-19 forced everyone into lockdown last year and delayed the reopening of schools this year by two weeks. This disruption poses a serious threat to an upward trajectory in the HDI value of the country.

The Head of Department at DBE, Mathanzima Mweli, admitted that 15 percent of the learners did not return to school after the first lockdown-induced disruption last year. The only way to minimise the disruption of learning and reduce the risk of a higher attrition or drop-out rate is to provide a solid ICT infrastructure which could include owning a digital identity under the local domain name to enable the schools to maintain their learning and teaching schedule.

The lack of a good ICT strategy is tantamount to denying the majority of South African youth access to education, thus perpetuating precarious inequality measure as expressed in our Gini coefficient, which is over 0.6 already.

Another example of how the Covid-19 lockdown could be prejudicial to the majority of poor South Africans was in the closure of the Department of Home Affairs to those visiting to renew their IDs.

Without IDs some of the 17 million odd South Africans who receive social grants could battle to receive their much-needed relief funds.

The call for the authorities to focus on providing reliable and affordable ICT access is not about #DataMustFall or merely a way to get on the bandwagon of frivolous criticism of the establishment.

It is rather a patriotic contribution to ensuring that our country is prepared for the delivery of uninterrupted social services, including education, social grants, even healthcare via telemedical channels, the sharing of information related to such urgent amenities like the vaccine, etc.

Every planning exercise in the new normal is not complete unless it factors in Internet access as a bare minimum.

Lucky Masilela is the CEO of ZA Central Registry.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Star or Independent Media.

The Star

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