Revolution: To overcome poverty, the government and private sector need to ensure poor South Africans have access to smartphones and digital literacy education . Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JEREMY GLYN
Revolution: To overcome poverty, the government and private sector need to ensure poor South Africans have access to smartphones and digital literacy education . Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/JEREMY GLYN

The fourth industrial revolution is fast becoming a reality. While many working people are improving their skills for a digital world, thousands of young people leave schools every year without digital literacy.

Most jobs today require some level of digital skills, but it is predicted that in about seven years, 5.7-million of jobs in SA will be digitally automated. By 2030, robot automaton will fill 800-million employment positions worldwide. In SA, which has huge unemployment and the majority of the population are in low-skilled jobs, digital education and training in schools should be the first priority.

President Cyril Ramaphosa extensively discussed financial investment in technology at the recent ITU Telecom world conference in Durban. However, at the jobs summit earlier in October, he said very little about the digital economy and skills shortage when discussing job creation and the promotion of local business. As unemployment, job creation, education and the digital revolution are intrinsically linked, this is worrying.

SA’s young adult population (aged 25 to 34 years) suffers a high unemployment rate of 29.9% — compared to 14.1% for people aged 45 to 54. If something is not done soon to prepare the large group of low-skilled workers and young people from historically disadvantaged communities for the economy, the country could suffer.

Middle and upper-class citizens are able to access smart technologies that aid them socially, academically and professionally. In a study conducted by the University of Cape Town, adults in these class groups generally see the benefits of their children using mobile devices to access educational tools for school.

In SA, digital literacy and inequality work together to aggravate the wealth gap, the digital divide and racial inequality.

Children also use smart mobile devices and the internet to build a sense of identity through social media. They are able to construct ideas of who they are (and who they want to be) by branding themselves. While this may be controversial, many jobs today require employees to have social media profiles and to know how to leverage their careers as an added benefit.

Conversely, smart technology in less wealthier communities is often seen as a distraction from education by adults, according to the UCT study about children’s digital literacy skills. The study, which examined households in poor and wealthy communities, showed that poor parents “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 resources and nor do they have the sociocultural backgrounds or linguistic resources to engage with the new media”.

Smartphones are an expensive luxury item, making them less accessible to poorer communities. Poor children are not exposed to vast amounts of reading material online, while also having almost no access to physical books because of lack of resources in state-run schools.  Social media is also not available to them, and so, the goal of companies like Facebook and Twitter to "connect" people or "see what's happening" is impossible to achieve.

In SA, digital literacy and inequality work together to aggravate the wealth gap, the digital divide and racial inequality. As Ramaphosa has said, something “extraordinary” needs to happen to decrease the unemployment rate in preparation for the fourth industrial revolution.

If we are to make any efforts to improve the dire conditions of poverty that affect the majority of South Africans, the government and the private sector need to make concerted efforts to make smart technology accessible to poor people and digital education needs to be implemented in schools. The president’s goal to produce 275,000 new jobs annually cannot assist people who lack digital skills and literacy.

• Boikanyo is a digital content producer for Digify Africa, a social enterprise that has trained more than 85,000 young people in digital skills.

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