South Africa’s Fourth Industrial Revolution limited by lack of computer literacy, access

Thabo photo with shirt
Thabo Malatji wears a shirt that he has designed himself. The aspiring fashion designer also works on YES Tembisa’s marketing team and is learning Microsoft Office skills. (Amy Sokolow/MEDILL)

By Amy Sokolow
Medill Reports

Thabo Malatji, 29, commutes an hour from Alexandra, a township north of Johannesburg, to Tembisa, another township even farther north, every day for work. His office is inside a cluster of vibrant blue, green and orange converted shipping containers, which pop against their dusty surroundings. The neighborhood is dotted with trees and situated in a community of modest, tightly packed houses with tin roofs. Malatji works at the Tembisa location of the Youth Employment Services, or YES, on their marketing team, and is mostly in charge of their social media presence. He is guaranteed employment for at least the next couple weeks, since he has been working with them for almost a year as part of a career training program, where he also learns computer and business skills.

His real passion, though, is fashion. “I actually made this top that I’m wearing,” he said, pulling at the hem of its blue-and-white-striped fabric to show it off. It’s perfectly tailored to his thin frame. Malatji has been trying to get his fashion business, Solexxx Threads, off the ground through social media, but he can’t always get his work done because he can’t get online at home. “I just need the financial backing because what I use here is Wi-Fi, and when I’m out of the range, I don’t have internet access,” he said.

Just outside where he is working, gathered under trees outside YES, are at least a couple dozen young people scrolling on their phones, connecting to the free Wi-Fi. Malatji estimates that this is the only spot for internet access for at least five kilometers, and he says his cell phone’s data plan is incredibly expensive, at 149 rand, or about $10 per megabyte. On his modest salary, that is a major expense.

Outside YES
South Africans gather outside YES’s Tembisa hub to access its free Wi-Fi. (Jack Kelly/MEDILL)

South Africa is embroiled in two competing narratives about its digital future. On one hand, the South African government has forged ahead on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, establishing a commission to align the public and private sectors in preparation for this wave of change. Inspired by the Davos World Economic Forum’s agenda, this era is defined by technologies such as 5G networks, the Internet of Things (internet-connected devices, like smart speakers and smart watches), biotechnology, big data, and artificial intelligence.

The scale of the problem

On the other hand, though only around 10% of South Africans have computers at home, 16% still lack electricity in their homes, and capped data plans are prohibitively expensive for most South Africans. While the government plans to stanch the 58% youth unemployment rate through STEM education, thousands of schools nationally, and over 100 schools in the Gauteng province, where Johannesburg is located, lack internet access, according to data from the National Education Infrastructure Management System.

Although the Fourth Industrial Revolution push may seem like a concerted effort by the South African government, “It is not a conscious, deliberate process. It is something that is happening because of the spontaneous intersections of a whole lot of emerging technologies,” said Brian Armstrong, the digital business chair at University of Witwatersrand, or Wits, and former secretary of the 4IR South Africa Commission. This accidental timing puts South Africa in a difficult position. The country has not yet caught up with the second (electrification) and third (computing) industrial revolutions. Regardless, it must balance efforts to provide electricity and internet for its citizens while advancing further into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, so as not to fall too far behind other nations.

Armstrong worries that pouring resources into this effort, through skills retraining and STEM education, “threatens to actually amplify the fault lines in society.” For example, Malatji mentioned the students at the private high school near his house were learning robotics, while he lacks accessible internet anywhere near his house, let alone the resources to learn these skills.

Richard Klein, a computer science lecturer at Wits University, said he faces unique challenges when teaching first-year computer science courses. “You’re teaching first year computer science to students that have never used computers, and they’re coming from rural areas and haven’t had the resources,” Klein said. “They are very smart and can do it; they just need the help to catch up, versus students who have grown up with tablets and laptops and did IT in school and all of that.” Klein advocates for a mandatory digital literacy component in schools to mitigate students’ technological skills gaps.

Prohibitive data prices

Skills gaps are only exacerbated by the fact that South Africans face high data costs, creating another barrier to digital literacy. Many South Africans cannot afford to purchase an unlimited data plan. The less data purchased per transaction, the more expensive it is per gigabyte, and many South Africans, who live paycheck to paycheck, have to purchase small amounts at a time.

According to statistics from the Alliance for Affordable Internet, “affordable data” means that customers spend less than 2% of their monthly income on data, per gigabyte. South Africans must spend 2.3% of their income on a gigabyte. With 70% of the South African population living below the “living wage standard” of around $438 per month, adequate data is “ridiculously expensive … for the vulnerable, exposed parts of our society,” Armstrong said.

Young people, fed up with the high data prices, started the #datamustfall movement in 2015, which aims to pressure the government to put caps on data prices set by the few telecom companies operating in the country. The governing party, the African National Congress, says it plans to enforce price caps in the next six months, though past efforts to do this have been poorly implemented.

As Helen Robertson, a philosophy professor at Wits University, points out, “If you have a government that was essentially either not providing the means for people to speak to each other, or … if they were in some way preventing people from communicating in this basic way, we would think that there was something wrong.” She believes that, in that sense, data access is a basic human right. As the 4IR commission forges ahead on its plans to keep up with other countries, Armstrong said the data element is being left behind, even though it “provides the fabric for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and without communication and connectivity, there will be no Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Uniquely South African solutions

Fisseha Mekuria, a researcher at the government-funded Center of Scientific and Industrial Research, is developing technologies that will strengthen 4G capabilities in rural areas to help address this digital divide. These technologies will run on solar power and, in partnership with rural internet service providers, can support entire rural communities. After installing these technologies in ten schools in the Limpopo province, “We could see how students’ education level goes up quickly because they can access the internet,” he said.

The students aren’t the only ones who benefit. He said other members of the community sit by the school, ask students for passwords to the Wi-Fi, and use the internet to download necessary government forms, for example. This connectivity can also benefit rural clinics, police departments and local internet-dependent start-ups. “There’s so many millions of people outside of this digital society that we need to connect, that is a challenge that we need to solve,” Mekuria said. “It’s not about increasing the highest speed, the gigabits per second for those who already have maybe 200- to 500-megabit-per-second connectivity. But we need to give at least 100 to 200 million per second for those who are unconnected, so that we bridge this divide.”

Once these connectivity issues are solved, 4IR technologies could be used to boost agricultural productivity. “If you can create an app that takes up where you take a photo of one of the plants that might have a disease, and if it can classify what type of disease it is and give you advice on how to fix it or save it,” Klein said. “There’s a lot of work throughout Africa within the AI space.” He said AI apps could also help clear backlogs in rural health clinics and laboratories by predicting medical issues in patients before tests are needed.

Given the opportunity, resources and digital infrastructure, young South Africans are already working on uniquely South African mobile solutions. Moepi Setona, 32, has been piloting an app to connect municipality leaders to their residents, supported by the Wits Tshimologong digital innovation hub, an entrepreneur incubator and skills training center. The app, called Let’s Talk, enables municipal ward leaders to communicate with their constituents via announcements. The app also allows low-income residents to request housing subsidies and integrates with GPS technology, which is used when residents request emergency services. Setona said this could save lives, because having someone’s GPS location can shorten response times in an area that lacks streets and addresses, where a “famous pole in the township” becomes a landmark.

Startup app screen
Moepi Setona demonstrates how to use his app, Let’s Talk. (Lily Zhao/MEDILL)

Most South Africans agree that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming, whether the country is ready for these challenges or not. “I think it’s good that everyone’s talking about 4IR and we have these ideas of ‘these are the new tools that are going to change the world,’” Klein said. “But it’s important that people know what they are and how they’re going to change the world and why they matter … If you’re looking ahead like that, always, then you’ll be OK.”

In the meantime, there are other ways to catch up. Malatji, the fashion designer, has been learning digital skills at YES, and is now certified at Microsoft PowerPoint. He’s also trained to educate others, and is applying for facilitator jobs to teach students to use Microsoft Office. When asked if he feels ready for the 4IR, he said, “I feel like I’m ready. At this point, I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.” And although he is still at a technological disadvantage at home, he said, “It’s going to make it harder, but I personally am a person that has will, I am a person that says ‘yes.’ I have determination. I will find a way.”

Photo at top: Thabo Malatji wears a shirt that he has designed himself. The aspiring fashion designer also works on YES Tembisa’s marketing team and is learning Microsoft Office skills. (Amy Sokolow/MEDILL)