The digital divide, a new stage?

By Marandela Netshifulani

Only a very small number of near-death situations can compare to the terror of entering your apartment block while unsure of whether you are being followed or observed because the entire block is dark. You have the perfect disaster waiting to happen when you add in the inability to contact emergency services in case the worst occurs due to network issues brought on by load shedding. This raises serious concerns about how widespread the consequences of load-shedding are and who is actually affected by them.

For the past 16 years, South Africa has experienced scheduled power outages, sometimes known as "load shedding," with no apparent end in sight. The nation's ageing electricity infrastructure, inadequate investment in new power generation, rising demand for electricity, and previous administrations' failure to pay attention to the power utilities' request for capital expansion are just a few of the causes of these problems. Currently, 85% of the population receives electricity from Eskom. According to the minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, load shedding costs the South African economy R1 billion every day.

The impact of load shedding and electricity supply problems on the nation's economy and people is considerable, made worse by the shift of business and financial service providers to digital platforms. Power outages can last up to 12 hours each day. Businesses are significantly impacted by frequent power outages and load shedding, which disrupts operations and results in financial losses. The employment rate and general economic growth are subsequently impacted by this. 

With 61,393,841 people in total, South Africa had 38.13 million active Internet users as of January 2021. This shows that a significant fraction of the population still lacks access and emphasizes the extent of the digital divide. In particular for students and individuals in townships and rural regions, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a grim image of how far-reaching the absence of connectivity and access to something as fundamental as the internet might be.

A setback for online access

The population's ability to access the internet is significantly impacted in South Africa by electricity load shedding. This is particularly true in townships and rural areas, where installing and maintaining infrastructure is not a priority. Achieving digital access, which includes using electronic devices, connecting to the internet, and using online services, is essential given the growing reliance on technology in daily life.

Power outages brought on by load shedding, also impede the accessibility of electronic devices like computers, cellphones, and tablets, as such these populations find it more difficult to get access to essential services like healthcare, education, and emergency services as a result. Since there isn't much infrastructure in rural areas and townships, connectivity has always been a problem. In reality, arguing in favour of an internet connection over a bridge or paved road may be presumptuous. If there is no market for it, development will not be prioritised.

People cannot access online services like e-commerce, online banking, and educational resources if they do not have access to energy. The effects of load shedding on online accessibility also bring attention to the digital divide between those who have access to dependable energy and those who do not. A major impediment to economic and social progress, this divide prevents those without access to the internet from taking advantage of chances for work, education, and entrepreneurship.

There is a disparity in digital literacy, across classes, in the workplace and in classrooms, which was made clear during the pandemic when teaching had to be done online while quarantine was in full force. They are back where they started when jobs were lost and professionals had to change careers when businesses closed for online teaching since the majority of online teaching organizations have "blacklisted" South Africa as a result of load shedding.

Is there still a stage left to go?

If the nation and its economy are ever to recover, the government must publicly invest in fibre infrastructure in townships and rural areas. Provide tax incentives for businesses that donate computers and other technology to schools as part of their CSR initiatives, while maintaining these computer labs to ensure continuity and consistency. Make digital literacy classes mandatory beginning in primary school. For a small price, after-school sessions can be provided to children who want to learn digital literacy and skills as well as unemployed youngsters.

Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, the government has not optimally engaged with its' audience by failing to communicate effectively with the general public about load shedding and to adopt a messaging framework that addresses the resulting problems. As a result, the government's most visible failure has been load shedding. 

Failing to adopt a crisis communication framework that builds on the 3Rs - Regret, Reason and Remedy - gives the whole issue a tone of lack of accountability and openness. As a consequence, opposition parties and civilians are filling this vacuum by leading the public conversation and broadening it to encompass other issues, including several disclosures about "skeletons" in the state's tax-funded, generator-powered closets. 

I hope that this unfortunate chapter in the country's history will be a source of valuable lessons for future governments on the critical importance of crisis communication, social dialogue and nation branding. After all, we can't always avoid crises, but public authorities can surely help people understand, perceive and interact with them better.

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