Case Study: Conceptualizing the Digital Divide in Cape Town, SA

I spent the entirety of my winter break working in Langa Township in Cape Town, South Africa. Though our main focus of the trip was the implementation of a sustainable garden and agribusiness with a cooperative, we spent some time introducing the aspect of technology (mainly the Internet and Gmail) to the women and men we were working with. If this experience taught me anything, it’s that the concept of the digital divide is real and evident even in a semi developed African country such as South Africa.

The idea of conceptualizing the digital divide into four categories: access, skill, policy and motivation allowed me to better reflect on the difficulties we faced while teaching. I specifically worked with a woman in her late twenties named Nosissa and a man in his seventies named Waterson. Both faced significant barriers to access living in a poor, old apartheid township. The physical barriers were obvious. Of course they did not own a computer, nor have internet access at home. Their options were either walking to the nearest Internet cafe and paying for usage (with money they did not have) or using the Internet at the local library. One problem with the library is that they’re open from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. (if anyone has a day job, these hours are a barrier themselves). A physical barrier specific to Waterson is that he has cataracts in his right eye. Additionally, language is an issue as most people in the townships only speak Xhosa (a clicking language) and the dominant language online is English. Oh and did I mention Waterson’s illiterate?

Motivation is another aspect not on our side. As language and reading is an issue, the fact that Internet has never been a necessity in their lives prior to our introduction, means it is also not a priority. Looking at all of the barriers to access, one would question why we bothered introducing technology to them in the first place.

This digital divide, the inequity in access to tools and resources through technology, is unfair. Having access to these resources could help them with questions about the garden, their new agribusiness and compost we instituted. It would allow them to learn, to communicate and to entertain themselves just as we in America get to do. This is why we bothered overcoming the barriers to access the people of Langa have. To hopefully bridge the digital divide that separates us from them.

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The picture above is of myself and Peter (another person on my trip) teaching Albert how to use the Internet and sign up for an email address in an Internet cafe.

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4 responses to “Case Study: Conceptualizing the Digital Divide in Cape Town, SA

  • kamyaraja

    Nice article Lauren! Looks like you had a great experience and were able to work on some real ICT4D issues in South Africa. My only concern was how you were able to jump straight into computer and internet use. How were you able to surpass the great language barrier since, as you mentioned, english is the main online language. The internet is a powerful resource and I agree, it can make a huge difference in connecting so many lives around the world, but did you have to begin with teaching some language first?

  • jdywest7

    Great post. I agree with you when you said “the inequity in access to tools and resources through technology, is unfair.” technology inequity is a huge problem globally especially among poor minority groups. More sustainable effort need to be implemented to serve these marginalized communities so the digital divide can begin to close.

  • ddipietro216

    I love this story because it presents so many real barriers that development agencies overlook.
    I’m sure this situation occurs all over Africa and the rest of the developing world, and it makes me wonder what the first step to ICT4D programs should be. I think that using ICTs is truly a different experience for everyone because people face different barriers to using ICTs (like handicaps and illiteracy, as you mentioned above). Therefore, are ICT4D programs in developing countries ever really going to work unless one-on-one training and assistance is possible? I get the feeling from your post that it was overwhelming trying to introduce just two people to technology. Your post really exemplifies the realities and difficulties that exist for ICT4D to tackle.

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