The South Cyber Divide
MARK TAPNICK assesses the role of the Internet in SA
AMID growing speculation that the next billion Internet users will come from the developing world, South Africans have firmly pledged their support for the New Economy - embracing the surging popularity of a communications network that is the single most important development in the computer industry since the IBM PC was unveiled in 1981 (and arguably the most popular instrument of revolution since the French unveiled the guillotine in 1789).
SA baby boomers, parents, teachers, policy makers, marketers, business leaders and social activists are being bombarded with the latest Net buzzwords by digital-savvy freaks - HTML, FTP, ISDN, VPN, ISP, LEOS, MEOS, Y2K and the media's current favourite, e-commerce. If the inner circle of the digital community is to be believed, transactions using the Internet will total about R1,5-trillion in the next three to five years.
This kind of figure poses a profound question: how can the apocalyptic growth of the Internet best serve all of society? More basically, what kind of world do we want our children to inherit?
The most widely feared prediction surrounding the digital revolution is the threat of what the Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, has touted as "the second wave of colonialism - info colonialism". The digital divide between information have and have-nots may herald the rise of a new apartheid - a frightening prospect for a nation with a legacy of inequitable distribution of resources.
South Africa Online's 1998 South African Web User Survey (www.southafrica.co.za) indicates that the rate of penetration of the haves is rapidly outpacing that of the have-nots. Says Media Africa's Arthur Goldstuck: "The average income of the surveyed Internet user is extremely high, at more than R11 000 a month, and a high proportion own their own homes."
The implications are that, unless a new social contract is achieved, poverty will beget information poverty and the digital divide will increasingly amplify socio-economic differences.
In a powerful address on human development, the Saudi leader Ahmed Zaki Yamani commented that what a poor man needs is not a fish but a fishing rod. On the brink of the millennium, in the context of the digital revolution, informed Internet access may prove to be that rod.
The empowerment possibilities of the info-fishing rod are nowhere better evident than in the sphere of education. The head of MIT's media-lab thinktank (www.mit.edu), Nicholas Negroponte, says: "The enormous leverage that a single Internet connection would provide to a rural primary school, to suddenly have access to the world's libraries, is a change of such magnitude that there is no way to understand it from the privileged position of the developed world".
With technology breaking global barriers, equal education opportunities are set to realign along the digital divide - the new "poor" could turn out to be those with poor skills. Online education initiatives like Cyberschool Africa are campaigning to redress the balance for high school pupils and teachers.
Not only does the business community need to rethink its responsibilities to social empowerment, it is in its interests to do so - after all, the success of the New Economy depends on the presence of a skilled New Economy workforce. Projects like the recently launched Fundani Project (www.fundani.org.za) aim to raise awareness and create an interactive training medium.
As the host nation of last week's Africa Telecom 98, the government too appears to be playing its part. Jay Naidoo, the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, has outlined a plan to get all SA schools on line within five to 10 years.
Before we can give this digital story a happy ending, we would do well to consider the following fact: Africa has the least developed communications infrastructure on the globe. With more than 700 million people and only 12 million telephone lines, there are more telephones in New York and Tokyo than in the whole African continent.
But help is at hand. Satellite technology and the advent of low earth orbiting satellites (LEOS) and middle earth orbiting satellites (MEOS) promises to make an Internet-accessed Africa into reality.
Besides, can you think of a country better suited to the challenges of sweeping technological change than our own? After all, the ability to change is our core competency.