The gret digital divide

2008-11-14 00:00

The perpetuation of disadvantage for so many South Africans is a matter of enormous concern. While the government has made im-pressive strides in the delivery of basic services and housing to many, there are areas in which, it seems, very little redress has been accomplished. Unfortunately, the pace at which advancement (or change, at least) occurs outstrips the rate at which backlogs can be addressed, so in some ways marginalised people are becoming more disadvantaged relative to those who are in a position to benefit from the progress.

It is not surprising that a number of communities have staged pro-tests to articulate their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of delivery. Generally, these people have displayed the patience of Job waiting for the promised “better life for all”. I suspect that what has really terminated this patience is public service indifference to the peoples’ circumstances. Municipal officials and councillors have too often placed their own interests ahead of those of the communities they serve, while the appalling disrespect for human dignity shown by more than one government department (Home Affairs, for example) would try the patience of the most phlegmatic person.

In contrast, the MEC for Education consistently reveals her concern for disadvantaged young people even though her department has been unable to attend to many of the glaring deficiencies in township schools. At a recent meeting she reported that the backlogs had been quantified. In order to address them at least a whole year’s total budget would be required. It is a slow process, therefore, as the demands for expenditure in other areas increase every year. The Education Department’s inability to provide even the most basic facilities at all its schools deepens the discrimination against those who have no alternative but to attend the nearest school, poor as it might be.

Not long ago, a person returned from a visit to a nearby school weeping about the conditions under which teachers and pupils were trying to engage in education. She said she had never witnessed such deprivation and poverty where three different groups of young children, none fewer than 30, were being taught simultaneously in the same room which in a privileged school would be considered too small to accommodate a class of 40. I wonder that a departmental official can visit that school and not raise Cain with the decision-makers until something is done. The right to vote and the absence of legislative bars to opportunity do not constitute freedom.

In respect of employment opportunities, a working knowledge of computers has become a minimum requirement. Privileged children have access to computers in their homes, and, more often than not, in their schools. Many others will never operate a computer throughout the whole of their childhoods and are thus rendered unemployable. For this reason, and in order to provide children in rural communities with the access to know-ledge offered by the Internet, the department has embarked on a project which involves mobile computer centres. Custom-built buses will transport computers and teachers into the heart of rural communities to provide children with some exposure to computers and their world of information until, it is hoped, all schools can be equipped with suitable facilities.

The Mobile eLibrary Project deserves the support of the private sector, upon which, in the absence of sufficient funding, the department must rely if this is to succeed. One is tempted to suggest that this is but a gesture of redress, but it is an important step towards ad-dressing the devastating effects of the so-called “digital divide”. In any event, we have to start somewhere and if we do not, we are no better than those who revel in their own freedom with scarcely a thought for those who remain enslaved by their poverty.

I have a final thought on this subject. The country, and the world for that matter, is experiencing an acute shortage of IT specialists. Most often, these people are self-taught through the experience of operating a computer and their formal training is supplementary to the knowledge and insights they acquire through experience and fascination. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be teaching people about computers, but giving them one each at an early age.

The dexterity and initiative shown by children in their ability to pick up digital and electronic skills have been wondrously observed in countries such as India, for example, and by electronically challenged parents all over the world. Perhaps a $100 laptop for each pupil and software that is not encumbered with all those features that are not required and which can be built on later as extra facilities become necessary, together with learning programmes, grade by grade, would serve a very constructive purpose.

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