In today’s digital age, access to technology and online platforms is no longer just a luxury but a necessity. This remains a significant, ever-increasing barrier to education and employment for South African youth. With platforms like LinkedIn, the job recruitment process is only moving closer to being completely online and educational resources are becoming more abundant in the digital sphere. Even businesses are moving towards cashless and online delivery systems, slowly phasing out human interaction and opting for a more digitalised transaction platform. Not having access to the digital landscape restricts students and job seekers while the digital sphere only grows. Despite these challenges, there is hope as South African pioneers and organisations work tirelessly to bridge this gap and empower the youth.

The Growing Digital Divide
With the digital sphere growing under our noses, South African youth are falling further behind in the race for equal education and employment. Understanding the causes of the digital divide can shed light on where to focus our attention to start fixing the problem. Khanyi Mlaba breaks down the issue in a piece by Global Citizen:
“South Africa’s digital divide can be broken down into three factors: access to hardware, understanding digital means of communication, and internet affordability. These factors are having a negative impact on two of the country’s best chances at development and equality, those being access to education and access to employment opportunities.”

The challenges Mlaba describes are strikingly present as I interact with my fellow classmates on campus. My degree requires a great deal of online involvement. Chatting to fellow students on campus I have realised the extent to which accessing the online world is not inherently equal.
“[W]hen I first came [to university], I struggled for a while because I came to varsity during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when teaching and learning was done online with zero to no contact learning. So was it affecting my academic performance because I was always behind until I got a smartphone in April that year,” says Ndabenhle (3rd-year chemical engineering student).

Ndabenhle echoes the sentiment that universities do provide support for those lacking access to specific devices but emphasises the concerns raised by Mlaba regarding affordability and accessibility. He points out: “[T]he problem is that you only get access to [university devices] when you’re [on] campus. [W]hen you’re at home, you’re to fend for yourself. [Y]ou still do not have 24-7 access to computers because being home doesn’t mean you don’t need to study.”
The experience of Ndabenhle is not uncommon among the majority of young South Africans at educational institutions. Many of these youths have limited access to digital hardware and internet. With an increasing reliance on technology in the employment and business sphere, the youth risk being left behind even with advanced qualifications. The South African youth are teetering on the edge of a growing abyss we call the digital divide.

Connecting Futures
South African youth are not backing down despite these challenges. Katlego Maphai, CEO and co-founder of Yoco Technologies is a great example of South African youth using technology to boost the small business economy in South Africa. Yoco is a financial technology company that allows small businesses to accept card payments with minimal investment. This greatly increases their ability to make transactions, increasing profit, as another payment avenue has been opened. Another example is Rapelang Rabana, Founder and Chair of Rekindle Learning. Rekindle Learning helps educators enhance their teaching programmes and exam methods, as well as helping businesses change the way they interact and work with employees with dynamic teams and feedback.

Bridging the Gap
As we look to the future, it’s evident that our journey through the digital landscape is only gaining momentum. Initiatives such as the Universal Access to the Internet, Free Public Access, the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, and the Telkom Connected Schools Programme are laying down the tracks for a more inclusive digital future in South Africa. These efforts, a collaborative push from both the public and private sectors, are pivotal in ensuring that the digital divide is not only acknowledged but actively addressed.

The significance of these endeavours cannot be overstated, especially as we move towards an era where technology’s role in our lives is set to become even more profound. The narrative is changing, from viewing access to the internet as a luxury to understanding it as a fundamental right, essential for participating fully in society. It’s about making certain that every South African, regardless of their socio-economic status, has a seat at the table in this digital age.

It’s important to recognise the progress being made and the journey ahead. The strides towards digital inclusivity in South Africa reflect a commitment to ensuring that all citizens can navigate, contribute to, and benefit from the digital world. The vision is clear: a future where technology is an integral, accessible part of every South African’s life, not a barrier that divides.

So, as we embrace the digital revolution, let’s celebrate the steps being taken to ensure no one is left behind. The path towards digital inclusivity is being paved with determination, innovation, and collaboration. The future is bright, and South Africa is ready to shine in the digital era.

How can we ensure access to technology and online platforms becomes more equitable, especially in education and employment?