OPINION: The South African government should get its priorities straight

Under the remits of the ICT Vision 2020, the South African government has pledged to ensure 100 percent Internet penetration across the country by 2020.

But the release of the Statistics South Africa Census for 2011 on Tuesday suggested that the government should have other priorities, given that many South Africans lack basic power, never mind Internet connections.

According to the census, the 2011 total level of Internet access penetration in South Africa stood at 35.2 percent of households, of which only 8.6 percent reported internet access at home, 16.3 per cent access the internet via their mobile device, and 4.7 percent of households rely on their work place for internet connection.

Related, only 21.7 percent of the country’s population lives in a household that owns a computer, the census revealed. Conversely, following the last decade’s boom in mobile telephony, the census shows that 88.9 percent of South African households own a mobile phone.

It can, then, be concluded that the only way that Vision 2020 targets will be met is through the use of mobile phone technology; a point picked up on by Vodacom’s Head of Corporate Communications Richard Boorman, who told HumanIPO: “Mobile penetration is the only way to achieve 100 percent penetration. By providing mobile internet services we [Vodacom] can help economic development in line with the targets set out in Vision 2020”.

The government has its work cut out in terms of reaching its Vision 2020 internet penetration targets – that much is for sure. However, the fact that internet penetration is the governmental focus for the coming years seems naïve and irrational.

The less flashy figures revealed in the census show that only 84.7 percent of households in South Africa have electric lighting, with a substantial 11.4 percent of households still reliant on candles for lighting, and another 3 percent using paraffin lamps.

Similarly, 73.9 percent of the population have electricity for cooking purposes, while a shockingly high 12.5 percent of households rely on wood for cooking. Again, 8.5 percent use paraffin.

Only 58.8 percent of the population have recourse to electricity for heating, with 15.3 percent of households burning wood for heat, 8.5 percent using paraffin, 2.5 percent relying on gas, and 2 percent using coal.

The question that begs an answer under these circumstances is, why is the government concentrating on Internet connection?

Surely, the basic comforts of household living should be the first focus of a government trying to achieve economic growth – such as ensuring everyone has access to electric lighting. It is also incredible that while 12.5 percent of the population have to cook on wood (not for fun in the form of a barbeque, but on a daily basis), this point is not top of the government agenda.

What use do households who cannot turn on an electric light really have for the Internet?

Not to mention the fact that the lack of universal electricity supply precludes a section of the population ever owning computers in their homes, and in this sense critics are absolutely right to point out that ambitious 100 percent penetration targets fall to mobile telephony providers for achievement.

While the internet is an endlessly useful tool, and the government and stakeholders are right to pinpoint it as a service that should be universally accessible, the government needs to walk before it runs.  More effort needs to be put into ensuring basic comforts for all households across the country, in order for the population to be able to fully enjoy the multiple powers of the Internet. 

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