Digital Africa Post the Pandemic: South Africa Report (After Access 2022-2023)

Despite an  emphasis on information communication technologies (ICTs) for development in South Africa over the past thirty years since its democratic transition, policies have fallen short in fostering inclusive digitalisation. Severe structural inequalities are still hindering socioeconomic mobility, and these inequalities are reflected in the extent and use of digital technologies by different population segments. At the same time the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities by widening existing disparities in digital use.

This Research ICT Africa (RIA) report provides a comprehensive account of the state of digitalisation amongst the South African population based on detailed data analyses grounded in prominent literature on associated topics. It is divided in to two parts, Part A utilises the Research ICT Africa Mobile Pricing Database in conjunction with secondary data sources such as Ookla’s Speedtest Intelligence data and desktop review of relevant policies and regulations to provide an overview of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) landscape. Part B then utilises RIA’s After Access survey data, the only nationally representative demand-side providing a detailed account of ICT access and use across multiple Africa countries post the COVID-19 pandemic, to comprehensively assess the level of access across different population segments and the barriers faced. It also goes into detail about the specific ways in which digital technologies are being used by South Africans as well as the inequalities therein and the major limitations holding individuals back from a deeper digital engagement.

On the supply-side there is evidence of a concerted effort to integrate ICTs into national development efforts, featuring prominently in several key national government policies and strategies. There are concerns over the autonomy of the national regulatory authority and the persistence of market dominance in the ICT sector. The recent spectrum allocation was structured to try and provide greater access for smaller market players, however the allocation was long overdue, severely delayed due to political principals and operators’ narrow interpretation of the law to fulfil their own interests. Although the mandatory pricing reductions on the dominant mobile network operators sought to reduce price abuse and result in fairer pricing for consumers, it appears to have had unintended consequences which has ended up strengthening the market power of the dominant providers and made it more difficult for new entrants.

On the demand-side aggregate data shows positive developments in an increase in internet access to 75% in 2022 and the near elimination of the gender access gap. However, a deeper look into the data reveals that most of this access is associated with social interactions and entertainment with the use of the internet for means associated with direct economic benefits, such as online work, accessing government services and the use of professional services, still lagging. Moreover, even though gender access parity has almost been achieved, there remain significant gender inequalities in the ability to harness digital technologies to realise these benefits. These inequalities are also reflected in a microenterprise survey conducted which reveals unrealised potential for microenterprises to access and use digital technologies, with female-owned microenterprises having significantly lower adoption rates.

The report culminates in a set of targeted policy recommendations to address digital inequalities and to promote an ICT sector which all South Africans are able to access and enjoy the benefits of.