Twenty years after the Apartheid government was overthrown, more than half of the country’s 52 million people survive on about $53 a month. The government acknowledged at the end of its latest poverty-trends report that the way to address this issue is by placing a greater emphasis on battling structural issues like a lack of education, historical segregation, and areas of high crime that perpetuate inequality in South Africa. And as technology begins to become a part of South African culture, a handful of companies and nonprofits in the country are trying to harness the fledgling information-and-communications-technology industry (ICT) to take on these issues. The hope is that people heavily hit by violence and inequality can be recruited to stable jobs in a booming industry—but the results of these efforts are still in beta.
The programs aim to train people from disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to work in ICT, equipping them with skills such as computer programming, app building, and web design. The ideal outcome is two-fold: Disadvantaged South Africans can learn a coveted skill set that has the potential to energize the economy and consistently give younger generations plenty of job opportunities. However, the ICT industry has not made much of a dent in the country’s poverty thus far. So how successful are these well-intentioned tech initiatives in making lasting change? And, when students agree to participate, do they really understand what they’re signing up for?
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Lungi Zungu, 28, was born in a mixed-race township in Durban, a city in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal.* One of a handful of people from her community to study ICT at the university level, she applied to complete a program at a tech development organization called CapaCITI after struggling to find a job post-graduation. CapaCITI works to train South Africans in software development, programming, and IT support, then connects students with companies for permanent positions. Zungu is now a full-time software developer at Sanlam.
“What we are trying to do is simultaneously address the tech skill shortage that companies face in the Western cape, as well as provide opportunities to unemployed youth,” said Alethea Hagemann, a skills-development-program lead at CapaCITI, describing her organization’s work as a “win-win situation.”
But critics of programs like CapaCITI warn that technology isn’t a fix-all for South Africa’s systemic problems, and shouldn’t be treated as such. “There’s this tendency to see technology as a magic bullet,” said Chenxing Han, a professional writer who studied the negative and nuanced sides of mobile technology in Cape Town. “There are these ideas and then there’s the reality: Running into barriers.”
A myriad of barriers stand between disadvantaged communities and the country’s flourishing tech sector. For one, although the South African government allocates more money to education than any other sector of its public spending, studies show that South Africa has “one of the worst school systems in the world,” according to World Policy. Before 1994, education in South Africa was racially organized, with separate schools, universities, and teacher colleges. Today, high-school students don’t take general technology as a subject, and students who live in historically resource-starved areas don’t necessarily develop technological literacy from a young age. A lack of reliable electricity also makes it difficult to have working technology inside the classroom, and the Internet itself is pricey. What’s more—even if students like Zungu have a university degree, there aren’t necessarily enough companies who can employ them, in part because of a saturated tech market, budget constraints, and a lack of consumers.