The urgency to close the digital divide is more serious than ever…  

The fourth industrial revolution(4IR) is  fast becoming a reality in our economy and while many working people are upscaling themselves to prepare for a digital world, thousands of young people are annually leaving schools without an adequate amount of digital literacy to survive the digital economy.

In our current economy most jobs require some level of digital skills from potential employees, but in about seven years, 5.7 million of those jobs in South Africa will be digitally automated. By 2030, robot automaton will dominate over 800 million jobs worldwide. In a country like South Africa, where unemployment rates are the highest and where the majority of our population possess low-skilled jobs, digital education and training in schools should be our first priority.

President Cyril Ramaphosa extensively discussed the financial investment of technology in South Africa at the ITU Telecom world conference in Durban. However, at a Job Summit that took place early this October in Midrand, President Ramaphosa spoke very little about digital when discussing job creation and the promotion of local business. Since unemployment, job creation, education and the digital revolution are intrinsically linked, this is very concerning.

Our young adult population (25-34) in South Africa shows a high unemployment rate of 29.9%, compared to 14.1% for people between the ages of 45-54. If something is not done to prepare the large group of low-skilled workers and young people from historically disadvantaged communities, then our country could suffer some very harmful effects.

The middle class and upper-class citizens in South Africa have the advantage of being able to access smart technologies that aid them socially, academically and professionally. In a study done by the University of Cape Town (UCT), adults in these class groups generally see the benefits of their children using mobile to access educational tools for school. Children also use smart mobile and internet to build a sense of identity through social media. They are able to construct ideas of who they are (or who they want to be) by branding themselves. While this may be controversial for some, many jobs today see social media profiles as a must have and learning to use your profile to leverage your career is an added benefit.

Conversely, smart technology in less wealthy communities is often seen as a distraction from education by adults, as seen in the UCT study about children’s digital literacy skills in South Africa. The study, which examined a household in a poorer community in comparison to a wealthier one, showed that the former group “did not see any educational value in children’s digital play”.

It also showed that “limited access to mobile phones in crowded living conditions [...] does not allow them [children] to engage with the developmental potentials of these [technological] resources and nor do they have the sociocultural backgrounds or linguistic resources to engage with the new media”

Of course, smartphones are also a luxury item, making it less accessible to poorer communities. In effect, children here are less exposed to vast amounts of reading material online, while also having poor access to books because of lack of resources in schools. Social media is obviously not always an option for them, and so, the goal for companies like Facebook and Twitter to ‘connect’ people or ‘see what's happening’ becomes lost on a whole host of people in these communities.

In South Africa, digital literacy and inequality work side by side in a way that simultaneously aggravates the wealth gap, the digital divide and racial inequalities. As President Ramaphosa, has said, something “ extraordinary” needs to happen to decrease the unemployment rate in preparation for Industry 4.0.

If we are to make any efforts to improve the dire conditions of poverty that affect the majority of South Africans, government and the private sector need to make concerted efforts to make smart technology accessible to poorer people and digital education needs to be implemented in schools. The President’s goal to apparently introduce 275 000 new jobs annually cannot be conducive to a people who lack digital skills and literacy in the age 4IR.

This piece first appeared on BD Live.

Mamaputle Boikanyo is a Rhodes University alumni with a BA in Anthropology and BA Honours in English Literature. She  currently works as a writer for Live Magazine SA and a digital content producer for Digify Africa. Her interests and passions are centred on fiction and writing. She is currently working on an anthology of short stories.