Op-Ed: Access to digital economy vital for SA building on freedoms issued in 1994

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Access to the digital economy is vital for SA based on the freedoms issued in 1994

By Kian Chen, Huawei SA, Deputy CEO

When South Africans went to the polls in 1994 for the country’s first fully democratic elections, the internet was still in its infancy. In fact, it was only in 1991 that South African universities received their first Internet connections. Few in these historic queues would have guessed how important the Internet would become in their daily lives or that access to the Internet and the digital economy would be crucial to realizing the full promise of 1994.

One person who did was the father of South African democracy, Nelson Mandela. In a 1995 landmark speech at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the freedom fighter and statesman highlighted the impact the internet would have on society and the global economy. In his speech, he rightly predicted that “the ability to communicate will almost certainly be a basic human right.”

“Eliminating the distinction between information-rich and information-poor countries is also key to eliminating economic and other inequalities and improving the quality of life for all humanity,” he added.

You only have to look at how dependent many of us have become on strong home connections over the past two years to work, learn and run businesses to realize how relevant this message was. And as South Africa seeks to advance its Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) goals and dramatically reduce unemployment, it will become increasingly important that as many people as possible have access to the digital economy.

Those of us who have the ability to connect to the Internet and the skills to make the most of that connectivity have freedoms that would have been unimaginable a generation or two ago. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that access to the digital economy is crucial to truly achieving the freedom that South Africa committed to in 1994.

Combining connectivity and skills

With the most advanced economy in Africa, South Africa has made significant progress in internet connectivity. The internet penetration rate in the country is currently 68.2% of the total population. That’s up about 64% the year before. As the country seeks to move towards universal accessibility, it will be crucial that all players involved – including telecom operators and infrastructure providers – pull in the same direction.

But connectivity is only part of the equation when it comes to being able to freely access the digital economy. It is also crucial to ensure that Internet users have the necessary skills and digital culture. After all, being allowed to enter a football stadium to watch a game is very different from understanding the game and having the skills to play on an equal footing with everyone else on the pitch.

Here too, South Africa has made significant progress and continues to do so. The latest phase of the government’s jobs recovery program, for example, is Ffocus is on digital skills training for young unemployed people.

Kian Chen

Kian Chen, Huawei SA, Deputy CEO

At Huawei, we recognize the importance of digital tools for freedom and have rolled out a number of initiatives to support both digital skills and literacy. Our Tech4All initiative, for example, aims to bridge the digital divide by addressing several major barriers. The first is cost, which we aim to address by making digital technologies affordable to developing regions with scalable, low-cost products and solutions.

We’ve also worked hard to build digital ecosystems and help developers build apps for different communities and industries. Additionally, we work with local governments, communities, organizations and other partners to improve society’s digital skills. We are particularly focusing on four high-impact areas in this regard, namely: education, health, environment and development. Our work in the environmental sector has seen us earn a reward for Mobile Innovation in Climate Action at the just-concluded Mobile World Congress.

We’ve also worked hard to ensure South African graduates are equipped with the technology skills they need to thrive in the workplace of the future. Since 2016, for example, our Seeds for the Future programme, run in partnership with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, has helped expose South African university students to new technologies. We also provided hundreds of students with scholarships to pursue studies in ICT-related subjects and ran a number of student and educator skills development programs through our local ICT Academy.

Building access where it matters

Living and working online is increasingly recognized as a human right. It makes sense, it is increasingly crucial to achieving the freedoms that South Africans fought for before 1994 and continue to fight for today. For these freedoms to be more than mere ideals, everyone must be able to access and participate in the digital economy. This cannot be achieved through connectivity alone. If we are to build a truly inclusive and rights-based digital economy, we all need to play our part when it comes to building skills and literacy.

This post and content is sponsored, written and provided by Huawei.

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