On 16 March 2020, I begrudgingly woke up on the morning after President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation regarding the spread of COVID-19 within South Africa. I was running around the room preparing myself to leave to campus for the day until my phone started going wild with notifications. Speculations that the university would be closing were soon confirmed by the institution. Our vacation period was moved up, and all students living in university-provided accommodation had to vacate within the next few days. With such little notice, many students found themselves stranded. 

A week later, on 23 March 2020, President Ramaphosa announced that South Africa would be entering a 21-day military patrolled lockdown in an attempt to flatten the curve. Since then, it was announced on 9 April 2020 that the lockdown would be extended for another 14 days. Universities and schools decided to keep their doors closed while online education took center stage, and suddenly the reality of South Africa’s digital divide became a rather pressing issue. While most students were preparing for online classes, those who found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, however, did not have the luxury of partaking in such classes.

According to Stats SA’s Poverty Trends in South Africa report, as of 2015, 55% of the population is living below the upper-bound poverty line in South Africa. This means that they are unable to purchase both adequate food and non-food items. Statistics such as these bring forth the question of how would poverty-stricken South Africans be able to effectively participate in online learning without the infrastructure or support to do so? As I sit here typing on my laptop with a roof over my head, food in the fridge and a stable WIFI connection, I am very aware of the fact that many of my peers do not have the same privileges.

The solution for effective online learning in South Africa is not as simple as providing computers to access online learning material. Many live in small, cramped and unhygienic spaces with little to no water or electricity. I attend a university where the majority of the student body live in university-provided accommodation with resources such as food, electricity, water, WIFI, heating and sanitation facilities. The university also usually provides all students access to libraries and computer labs. Thus, universities have become a safe haven for many students who do not have the same resources in their respective households. With the lockdown, these favorable conditions for learning have been stripped away from these students.

Students without these conducive home conditions face the difficult decision of seeking other accommodation, away from loved ones, in order to effectively continue their studies. Many students who receive funding are forced to use the money on groceries and other home essentials for their families, rather than purchase laptops or data. Such domestic issues seem to not be at the forefront of concerns for academic institutions.

Their focus appears to be digital-oriented. The University of Cape Town has provided laptops to all students on financial aid. The University of Witwatersrand established a Mobile Computing Bank, which will enable qualifying students to loan basic devices from the bank. Rhodes University has conducted an extensive survey on students’ capability to engage remote/online teaching and learning. They have ordered laptops which “will not be cost-free, but will be made available to students who need them for online education on a financed arrangement.” Furthermore, they plan to deliver printed study packs to students who are not able to make use of online facilities, and acknowledge that they have a “moral obligation to ensure that no student will be disadvantaged by the delivery of teaching and learning using online systems.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is making me, and I am sure other South Africans too, painfully aware of these inequalities now more than ever. The mere fact that we are being told to wash our hands to slow the spread of the virus, yet have no water to do so is a testament to how ill-prepared we are, as a developing nation, to handle such an issue. It is a social justice imperative for the privileged to help those that need it. However, I, as an average citizen, feel overwhelmed and incapable of making a lasting difference. Especially in a time where leaving one’s house to share resources puts them and those around them at risk. 

Thus, the government and the various academic institutions within the country need to make a proactive effort in helping students in need during this time. Solutions already adopted by the University of Witwatersrand include pre-loading devices with the required learning resources before being delivered via the South African Post Office to students who need it and arranging with telecommunications service providers to zero-rate its library and learning management sites. Other universities should either follow suit or suspend all academic activity. Without our leaders doing something, we risk stunting the growth of our future workforce. 

  • Kajal Premnath is a journalist, writer and editor based in South Africa. She enjoys interrogating the ways in which representations of diverse cultures and social justice issues in popular media affects everyday life. Kajal is obsessed with dogs, hates cheese, and believes "Jane the Virgin's" Rogelio de la Vega to be her alter ego.