Surfing the internet’s next wave

2012-12-02 10:00
Indra de Lanerolle
Who uses the internet in South Africa?

A student of mine recently said she thought art galleries are frequented by “old, rich, white people” (she is black).

And many seem to believe the internet might be equally exclusive, in its own way – at least if we swap “young” for “old”.

Behind this is a common idea the internet is a luxury – for rich (white) people and rich (white) countries.

And so, the thinking goes, in South Africa we should focus on sorting out the basics – like getting textbooks to Limpopo – before we worry about the World Wide Web.

But it turns out the internet in South Africa is not mainly for rich people, certainly not only for white people, and is used by both young and old.

So here is the news (in print, at least for now) – and it’s a story that might surprise many.

One in three adults in South Africa – more than 12 million people – use the internet. That’s more than double the number that used it four years ago.

Most of them speak an African language at home, and four out of 10 are living on less than R1 500 a month.

Most of them finished their education at high school. And they are of all ages.

In other words, the typical internet user is now not that much different from the typical South African – just a little older maybe, and a little paler, a little more educated and a little better off.

How do we know this?

This week, a new report was published by Wits Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand.

It’s based on a major survey of South African adults conducted in collaboration with Research ICT Africa.

The survey shows, over the past few years, a new wave of internet users has come online.

This new wave is young, black, school educated and not rich.

They have come online in spite of few owning computers and few having an internet connection at home.

They are, of course, using their phones, are going to internet cafes and, if they are students, they often use the opportunity to go online where they learn.

So why are they using this luxury? The answer is that the internet isn’t a luxury at all.

The reasons users give for why they first went online are: to get information, to socialise, to study, for work and to look for jobs.

These sound much more like basic needs than luxuries: to get information for work, for study or just for living a better life.

There is basic need to connect with friends and family – in a country where many of us, from Marikana to Morningside, have to maintain relationships over long distances.

These basic needs now enable modern life.

But they are still beyond the reach of most. About half of those who don’t use the internet say they would go online if it were available within walking distance of where they live and would pay at least R50 per month for the privilege.

That’s a market opportunity in excess of R7 billion a year.

What will it take to make that market work?

The report suggests we need two things to happen.

Firstly, although mobile data costs have fallen a little, they need to fall much further. Alan Knott-Craig, the chief executive of Cell C, said this month: “We need to be talking not 5c a meg but 5c a gig.”

Secondly, we need to increase shared access that brings the internet closer. Mpumalanga announced this month that almost every library there now provides free internet access.

Not every province has done the same.

Most universities now provide free access for their students, but only a minority of schools and further education institutions do. Cheaper data costs would make internet cafes viable in more places.

The report was launched at Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein.

A few of my students were there (not white, not rich and certainly not old) tweeting from their phones.

Is it such a stretch to imagine a time when we could send the textbooks Limpopo’s children need via the internet?

The new wave has brought us to a point where imagining a country where everyone is affordably connected to everybody else does not seem entirely implausible.

To make that a reality, we need the public and private sectors to bring us the next wave.

» Read The New Wave report online at or request it in writing from Wits Journalism, Private Bag 3, Wits, 2050

» De Lanerolle is a visiting research associate at the University of the Witwatersrand

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