On 21st April 2020, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) President and Member of Parliament, Honourable Julius Malema, called on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to announce “comprehensive and workable interventions to salvage the 2020 education calendar”. President Ramaphosa is expected to address South Africans on 23rd April 2020 after announcing a R500 billion Covid-19 Emergency Relief Package on 21st April 2020.
Two days earlier, on 19th April 2020, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Honourable Buti Manamela, had lamented Wits University’s plan to resume academic programmes online on 20th April 2020 as “irresponsible and inconsiderate”. Manamela submitted that Wits was breaking an agreement by stakeholders to work towards a later date for the resumption of academic programmes when all stakeholders would have been ready to ensure that there would be no students left behind.
On 21st April 2020, despite having earlier recommended the use of distance learning to limit the disruption of education caused by Covid-19, UNESCO revealed startling disparities in digital learning. Of the 1.5 billion learners worldwide, 826 million learner do not have access to a household computer with 706 million not having internet at home. The disparities are even worse for Sub-Saharan Africa with 89% of learners not having access to computers and 82% lacking internet access.
However, these disparities in digital learning can not only be overcome, but can actually form the basis of more equitable access to education. When cell phones were introduced in Zimbabwe in the mid 1990s, the Shona language coined a translation for them as “nhare mbozva”, which literally means the “phone for the rich”. Cell phone have now become ubiquitous with mobile penetration in Zimbabwe having moved from 2.2% in 2000 to averages of over 90% in the last ten years, with some years recording over 100% penetration. Mobile technology has enabled the growth of telecommunications in ways that were not imaginable thirty years ago in Africa.
Telecommunications growth in Africa has spawned the democratisation of financial services. The introduction of mobile financial services like MPesa in East Africa, EcoCash in Zimbabwe and e-wallet in South Africa has brought some semblance of financial inclusion to Africans who would have otherwise been financially excluded. It is possible for Africa to utilise telecommunications growth to also improve access to education. Such initiatives need to be led.
African Union chair, President Ramaphosa, must lead the ubiquitous introduction of digital learning in Africa using organisations such as UNESCO, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and UNICEF. Most countries have universal access funds that can be used to not only narrow, but eliminate the digital divide. Business, particularly in the digital and communications sectors, will benefit significantly by investing in the digital access and literacy of Africa’s young people.
Under President Ramaphosa, South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the best in the world. President Ramaphosa has provided commendable leadership to his government, consulted across political lines, brought on board social, cultural and religious leaders, engaged business, and effectively utilised academia. I hope President Ramaphosa will once again bring everyone on board to ensure that, at the very least, those of South Africa’s universities that have not yet been able to resume digital learning will follow the lead of Wits. Wits is providing devices to students who don’t have, sending data to all students, and negotiating for zero rating to its sites. Hopefully, successes in the higher education sector will also be rolled out to basic education and the entire education sector.
Asante Sana. Iwe Neni Tine Basa. Umsebenzi lo Umkhulu.