Picture: 123RF/Olena Yakobchuk
Picture: 123RF/Olena Yakobchuk

Finance minister Tito Mboweni was right on the money in prioritising technology and education in his maiden budget speech. But Mboweni’s allocation of R10.4bn to the department of rural development and land reform should also have committed to meaningful rural development. The improvement of lives in rural areas must be technologically driven to ensure everyone is part of the fourth industrial revolution.

As someone who comes from rural KwaZulu-Natal but has lived in Johannesburg for 17 years, I am concerned about the many inherent and historical structural differences between these two worlds. The differences are wide-ranging, but typically talk to three main dimensions: social, educational and financial. As Mboweni correctly observes, education is critical to determine so much about people’s lives across many dimensions.

As we strive for more socioeconomically inclusive societies, we must address the inequalities that exist in the education system. Education remains the biggest tool for preparing individuals for future participation in the economy and in affirming their common humanity in the modern world. Quality education improves one’s chances of employment and entrepreneurial acumen.

Although some progress has been made towards improving educational inclusiveness in SA, much remains to be done. One of the key objectives of the national development plan 2030 is ensuring that 80% of schools and learners achieve 50% and more in literacy, mathematics and science in grades three, six and nine.

However, in the 2016 progress in international reading literacy study, which tested reading comprehension of learners in their fourth year of primary schooling, SA ranked last out of 50 countries. Seventy-eight percent of SA pupils in grade four could not comprehend what they read. This is particularly problematic as this skill is the foundation of many other critical skills, including reasoning and logic. We also fare poorly in mathematics and science.

This exposes some deficiencies in our education system, and perhaps requires rigorous improvements in the education system. In its future of jobs report, the World Economic Forum identified key skills that will be required to enhance one’s competitiveness in the world of work and business by 2022.

Increasingly, skills such as creativity, originality and initiative, technology design and programming, as well as critical thinking and analysis, have now become imperative. Such skills require practical application, often lacking in SA’s public education system, which tends to focus on knowledge acquisition at the expense of practical skills.

Although in the developed world the internet and technology now feature prominently in helping learners improve creativity, thinking and problem-solving ability, SA lags far behind. It is extremely worrying that for most rural/peri-urban schools computers are either introduced only at high school, or even worse at tertiary level.

For any learner (and we know the colour of that learner) to be excluded from easy access to ICT technologies is grossly unjust. It perpetuates socioeconomic inequality, compromises the future success of those learners, and has a negative impact on even the next generation.

The conversation should not end with the education system, however. It must be a comprehensive survey and critique of the broader communities within which schools lacking ICT facilities and internet connectivity are located. According to Statistics SA, as at the end of 2017, 34% of the SA population lived in rural areas.

Such statistics strongly suggest that the hordes of people who live in rural areas are too sizeable a portion of the modern SA population. Constant marginalisation of rural communities, especially the rural poor, who are accustomed to the poorest records of service delivery, is perilous and an often unspoken form of “normalised” injustice.

Yet another threat to Mboweni's optimistic and pragmatic budget is the country’s unemployment rate among people between the ages of 15 and 34. It stood at a staggering 52.8% in the third quarter of 2018, and it is possible that the official figures are conservative estimates. The situation is even worse in rural and peri-urban areas for women and youth.

The indignity that comes with living off social grants for able-bodied youth, especially young mothers, is a shame the entire society must fight on all fronts. To ensure greater economic participation of rural areas, we need to develop a deeper appreciation for the specific problems they face compared to urban areas. Specifically, sparsity — which is the polar opposite of the density problem faced by urban areas — is at the core of the general lack of ICT advancements observed in rural areas.

Critical foundational infrastructure is expensive, and in sparsely populated areas generates low investment returns at first. This has the effect of the private sector being less willing to roll out such infrastructure, as has been observed with (superfast) broadband. It therefore underscores the importance of the government assuming a more fundamental role in addressing these issues.

The need to nurture and support entrepreneurship, skills development and youth-focused job creation is urgent. Now is the time to build a sustainable and robust digital economy for inclusive economic growth, reducing youth unemployment and the attainment of social cohesion. It is no longer acceptable that developmental models carry the baggage of history and the socioeconomic injustices of the spatial planning abuses of the apartheid era. Affordable, reliable basic technologies and community internet access across SA must underline the kind of vision articulated by Mboweni in his budget.

The private sector’s ability to be “the key engine for job creation” is currently compromised by slow, unreliable and expensive internet access in some instances. The situation is worse for the small, medium and micro-sized enterprise sector and for SA’s unemployed youth. Bold investment in ICT infrastructure by model countries such as Rwanda (and of course Kenya), is the key towards making the fourth industrial revolution real in our lifetime.

• Ngidi is an independent investment analyst based in Johannesburg.