South Africa compares digital divide to apartheid

Social and economic inequalities as a legacy of apartheid are being perpetuated by a lack of IT equipment and skills, says the country's high commissioner

The effect of the lack of IT equipment and skills in developing countries has been likened by South Africa's high commissioner to the inequality that existed in the country under the apartheid system.

Speaking at an event organised by IT charity Computer Aid in London on Wednesday, Her Excellency Lindiwe Mabuza said issues surrounding access to and skills in information technology are major contributors to economic and social inequality in South Africa.

"If South African children do not have [access] to this technology, then the past inequalities of apartheid will continue and that cannot be allowed to happen," Mabuza said. She said that, while access to PCs and other computer technology is taken for granted in developed countries, there are around five desktop machines or fewer per 1,000 individuals in most developing countries.

"In poor communities of developing countries, the idea of touching, let alone using, a computer would be like a child taking the space shuttle to school every day," added Mabuza.

The commissioner made the comments at an event to celebrate the tenth birthday of Computer Aid, a charity which takes unwanted PCs from UK organisations, refurbishes them and distributes them to schools, colleges and other public-sector organisations in the developing world.

Only six percent of individuals over the age of 20 have a post-school educational qualification in South Africa, according to a 1996 census. Computer Aid has donated PCs to the Community and Individual Development Association (CIDA) University in South Africa to provide affordable higher education to poor students.

Also appearing at the event was Shahid Malik MP, the UK parliamentary undersecretary for international development, who congratulated Computer Aid for distributing around 100,000 PCs to developing countries since 1998.

Malik announced that the Department for International Development (DFID) was donating around 1,000 used but functional laptops to Computer Aid. "DFID is updating its old laptops, which still have life in them but are not up to running the software we need to make DFID work efficiently," he said.

Laptops are especially sought-after in the developing world due to their portability, which makes them especially useful to people with disabilities.

Computer Aid is currently working with several disability organisations to provide laptops to visually impaired students and teachers in Africa. Laptops equipped with screen-reading and audio-translation software mean that visually impaired students no longer have to deal with prohibitively costly and bulky Braille textbooks, which are often extremely difficult to obtain, and no longer need to rely on others to translate and read text for them.

Commenting on the organisation's 10-year history, Computer Aid founder Tony Roberts claimed that, while the Millennium Bug had been costly for a lot of companies, it had benefited the IT charity by forcing an enormous refresh of desktops — an increase of about 50 percent on existing donations at the time — which could be sent to developing countries.

"We were reasonably sure that [the Millennium Bug] wasn't going to happen, but we took the opportunity to gamble and hoover up the enormous amounts of PCs available," he said. "Most IT managers knew that nothing was going to happen either that year, but they got to double their budgets."