COVID-19, Digital Substitutional and Intersectional Inequality – The Case of South Africa

This paper is an output of the COVID-19 Responses for Equity (CORE) Project, which encompasses the Latin American, South Asian and African regions and is delivered via a Global South consortium. The South African study analyses the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated public policy responses on digital and intersectional inequality from a demand-side perspective. The analysis takes into consideration cross-cutting issues such as gender and demography. 

The overarching research question in this study was: How has COVID-19 and its associated public policy responses influenced digital and intersectional inequalities in South Africa?

We put forward four sub-questions to help answer the overall research question: 

1) What has been the effect of COVID-19 on digitalisation, particularly with respect to demand for and access to government information, remote schooling, social media, and entertainment across digital platforms? 

2) What is the effect of COVID-19 on social protection across employment types, geographic location, and gender?  

3) To what extent has COVID-19 contributed to an increase in remote work and what were the effects on work in the informal economic sector? 

4) How has COVID-19 affected e-commerce, remittances and taxation across intersections such as employment type, geographic location and gender?

The report is structured by the following primary sections: 

  • Background and contextual issues related to COVID-19 in South Africa. 
  • The results of the study regarding the data collection methods.
  • Key research findings from the survey and the focus group discussions and the implications of these.
  • Key policy recommendations.

The results from the survey show that a direct effect of COVID-19 protocols, which included limited physical interaction, was an increased move towards digitalisation. Compared to RIA’s 2017/18 After Access survey findings, the results indicate that the proportion of people who use the Internet jumped from 53.1% in 2017 to 62% in 2021. The study further finds that the increase in Internet use across the South African population was not even, with Internet adoption among marginalised communities and groups accelerating at a slower pace than for the rich, men, and those living in urban areas. The increasing digital divide not only exacerbated the existing income disparities and the knowledge gap but also led to information disparities. 

People who were not connected to the Internet did not get timely information about COVID-19 risks, were more susceptible to contracting the virus, and had a higher probability of death because of it. Similarly, participants in the focus group discussions indicated that the rise in Internet use came with costs. Several of them stated that they had to reduce spending on food and other necessities to pay for Wi-Fi connections. Others indicated that they had to relocate to family members who had an Internet connection so that their children could access online classes. Those who live in rural areas stated that online schooling activities were not available in their areas and as such their children were left behind.

Suggested citation

Chinembiri, T., Banya, R., Mothobi, O., Kabinga, M., Yusuf, B., & Gillwald, A. (2022). Digital and intersectional inequality in South Africa: A demand-side perspective. CORE Policy Paper no. 1. Research ICT Africa.