Becoming Part of the Global Village: Telecenters in Rural South Africa

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LIMPOPO, South Africa — The modern world demands that people be technology-savvy. The entire globe has become digitalized, and Internet use and our daily routines are intertwined.

The ability to use and access computers and the Internet has become paramount in this country’s capitalist society. E-commerce is fast becoming the dominant way of conducting trade and commerce, even in developing countries. Consequently, ensuring the availability of information communication technologies to citizens has become a government obligation.

In South Africa, however, ownership of digital devices and access to the Internet are still beyond the reach of many and regarded as a luxury. Since the abolishment of apartheid, the nationwide goal of uplifting the economically marginalized has introduced several community initiatives. Creation of telecenters in rural South Africa is one such endeavor.

Bridging the digital divide

(USAASA) was set up under the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services to ensure that South Africans have access to modern information technology. Under the Electronic Communications Act (ECA), the agency is tasked with providing affordable access to information communication technologies through the  Fund (USAF). Every holder of a license granted under the terms of the ECA is required to make prescribed contributions to the USAF. The fund is used for various initiatives, such as financing construction or extension of information communication technologies in underserved areas and education and training in these technologies in schools and telecenters.

In South Africa, a telecenter is a government-funded facility that offers the public computers and Internet access. In the beginning, a typical telecenter was designed to provide connectivity and access to information and communication technologies, including telephones, fax services, computers, Internet connection, computers and a copying/photocopying machine. Today, the focus is on tutoring in basic computer skills and familiarity with the World Wide Web.

It is no surprise, then, that most telecenters are situated in rural areas of South Africa and that the most frequent visitors are young people. Two such facilities, Mankweng Telecenter and Botlokwa Youth Telecenter, have been set up in rural Limpopo.

Inside the Mankweng Telecentre in Limpopo, South Africa.

Pro Journo

Inside the Mankweng Telecentre in Limpopo, South Africa.

“This telecenter, like many others in this country, remains the main source for information communication technologies knowledge for the local populace in poor societies such as ours,” says Cecilia Machaka, an administrator at the Botlokwa Youth Telecenter. It specializes in training, moving around schools in Botlokwa village. Basic computing skills are taught to the students, and as an orientation phase, computing tutorials are offered to them throughout the year.

This type of approach is referred to as an e-connectivity project, where information communication technology centers are built at schools and provide learners with computers and Internet connectivity, according to the USAASA. The agency purchases computers, servers and printers, as well as paying for Internet connectivity for these facilities.

The Mankweng Telecentre operates in a different way, more like an Internet café, but it is not a purely commercial entity. Instead, it is a social enterprise. The Internet connection price a client at Mankweng pays is subsidized by the government through the USAASA. Users therefore pay less than they would at normal commercial rates. The major obstacle to Internet access and usage has been high pricing, and the subsidies that the agency provides to selected telecenters such as Mankweng are meant to significantly reduce that expense.

The center also offers in-house computer literacy classes, also at a subsidized cost. “These kinds of computer institutions, such as ours, are needed because not everyone is going to be computer-literate and not everyone has a computer in their homes, and so we provide relatively cheap computer literacy knowledge for the poor,” says Mantsho.

Computer training taking place at Mankweng Telecentre.

Pro Journo

Computer training taking place at Mankweng Telecentre.

Is it enough?

One problem is that as technology quickly advances, policies regarding its use quickly become obsolete. In South Africa, policy and legislation on information communication technologies may be as much as 15 years old. Although initiatives such as telecenters are helpful, they are now irrelevant to society’s needs.

The National Integrated ICT Policy Discussion Paper makes note of this, acknowledging that the digital divide in South Africa is still very pronounced, especially in rural areas. Another important aspect highlighted by the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services’ paper is the fact that the USAASA has a very small budget and does not always use its entire funding. Although the policy mandates that the government take a leading role in providing affordable information communication technologies to all people, the budget allocation indicates a very lukewarm approach. Despite making efforts, South Africa’s democratic government has failed in this regard. And although projects such as South Africa Connect and the National Development Plan prioritize accessibility to information communication technologies, statistics show there has been very little success. Furthermore, allegations of maladministration and mismanagement at USAASA have certainly not helped the agency’s operations.

A better, more concerted effort needs to be adopted. There are still problems in terms of South Africans’ access to the Internet and ownership of digital devices such as computers. It is also no surprise that rural people, especially youth, do not have a consistent, cheap and readily available source for information communication technology.

In his state of the nation address President Jacob Zuma admitted that South Africa remains behind in its quest to provide modern technology to its people. Still, he insisted, “We will expand, modernize and increase the affordability of information and communications infrastructure and electronic communication services, including broadband and digital broadcasting.”

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