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Douglas Cohen (South Africa) - Connecting Rural Areas (Part 1)

How rural is South Africa? Well it obviously depends what you mean by rural and who you are asking. According to Statistics South Africa (2001), 42.5% of the South African population lives in rural areas. In KwaZulu-Natal over 54% of the population still reside rural areas, while in Limpopo 89% of its population in rural areas. Limpopo also has an estimated 46% unemployment level, very low levels of education and limited hope of large scale formal sector investment and job creation. To make this fact very real a recent columnist stated that “A woman leaving school in Limpopo stands a one in eight chance of ever getting a job.”

This is a complex, multidimensional and dynamic socio-economic challenge which even with the provision of a 100Mb fibre line to every village kraal, hut and shelter cannot fix, but that’s not to say having access or rather being connected is not very important. Just Google the term “ICT4D” (Information and communication technologies for development) and be amazed by the tons of theriacal and practical research/evidence that proves that more and better information and communication furthers the development of a society (be this to improve income, education, health, security, or any other aspect of human development). Maybe it’s a pity that too few decision makers use Google?

Given the vastness of rural places in South Africa, rural has become synonymous with also being “under-serviced” in particular from an access to ICT’s; a much wider definition is required. However, I am not suggesting that we just treat ‘rural South Africa’ as an amorphous mass, but to recognise rural diversity and the uniqueness of different rural lives, livelihoods, challenges and possibilities. There are even large portions of the urban population for whom connectivity and affordable access remains a real problem – see previous blog (Creating Connected Places). Policy makers need to urgently (but creatively) need to understand prior to defining what under-serviced means in term of:

•    The people and the communities;
•    Quality of life factors including the socio-economic opportunities;
•    Functional government services or poor service delivery;
•    The wider context of human settlement in South Africa, in particular urbanization and rural migration;
•    Transport, hubs and nodes; and
•    An understanding and recognition of markets.

Not having access to electronic communication or broadcasting services is really just a reflection on other underlying, often multiple factors, on why such an area cannot attract, retain or sustain electronic communication or broadcasting services. Examples would include for example, market failure, government failure, limited/poor or no infrastructure (e.g. electricity) and shrinking communities i.e. market size. Another way of looking at this would be to say that while having access to electronic communication services is important, surely it is equally or rather more important that such services also:

i.    Are accessible (for example in libraries, community centres, school);
ii.    Are affordable based on the levels of poverty and dependence on social grants;
iii.    Support and extend the reach of all government services (both within and across government);
iv.    Enable a social safety net, through health, education and safety services;
v.    Create an inclusive society through access to postal services, banking, transactional and savings services; and
vi.    Stimulate enterprise development, entrepreneurship and innovation, especially among the youth.

In part two of this blog, published next Monday (May 28th) I will explore several ways which I believe the connections between rural areas can be strengthened.

By Douglas Cohen, South African Local Government Association (SALGA).

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