South Africans Who Can’t Afford Data Are Being Left Behind

GOOD speech by Brett Herron,
GOOD: Secretary-General & Member of Parliament

18 May 2022

Note: This is the speech that was delivered by GOOD Secretary-General and Member of Parliament, Brett Herron, during today’s Parliamentary Budget Vote on Communications & Digital Technologies.

It is surely time for South Africa to be having a serious conversation over whether access to data, like access to potable water and health care, should fall into the category of a basic human right.

By commodifying data and pricing it out of the range of the majority of citizens we drastically restrict access to the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution, perpetuating and deepening inequality.

As things are, instead of levelling the playing field as we hoped it might, the much-heralded age of technology is serving to heighten the mounds of privilege and deepen the troughs of poverty.

The government wants 80% of the population to have access to the Internet by 2024. But access to the Internet is of little worth to those who cannot afford data. A bit like people with theoretical access to electricity, but who live in the dark because they cannot afford to pay for any of it.

According to the 2019 General Household Survey, 64.7% of South African households had at least one member with access to the Internet, either at home, work, place of study or Internet cafés. Just over 10% of South African households had access to the Internet at home.

Yet more and more of modern life takes place online. More people work remotely, access educational materials on the Internet, and do their shopping electronically. Digital skills are in higher demand in the workplace, in the health space and in commerce.

Those without the ability to fund data are once again being left in the dirt.

We have to ask ourselves if the re-impoverishment of more-or-less the same group of people who were deliberately impoverished under apartheid is either desirable or sustainable.

How do we grow an economy in an environment in which most people can’t participate? It beggars belief that the cost of data in South Africa is among the highest in the world.

In his SONA, President Ramaphosa drew attention to the Competition Commission having instructed mobile operators to adjust their pricing to reduce the digital inequality.

The operators lowered the ‘poverty premium’ on low-denomination, prepaid mobile bundles. But this is hardly enough. The rich, with their greater purchasing power, still pay less for data.

The president referred to the Competition Commission having proposed a free ‘lifeline’ data package to provide a certain amount of free data daily at no cost. That would be a good place to start.

For it to work for all implies developing sufficient telecommunications infrastructure to cover the nation. It is time for this proposal to see the light of day.

With will and dexterity, we can close this gap, demonstrate the value we put on reducing inequality and lift the false ceilings that trap the disconnected and keep them down.

Media enquiries:

Brett Herron, GOOD: Secretary-General & Member of Parliament
Cell: 0825183264

Samkelo Mgobozi, GOOD: Media Manager
Cell: 0792315977 (WhatsApp)/0829684021 (calls)