The rising prominence of the digital economy and increased reliance on digital technologies to conduct socio-economic activities means that the ways in which societies are able to digitally substitute is an important determinant of development pathways. The relative ability of different population segments to access and use digital technologies in an increasingly digitalised society determines the distribution of the benefits and consequently the extent to which digitalisation and datafication serve to reduce or exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities.
The opportunity to harness digital tools to improve livelihoods and to reduce inequalities in society –and to use them for survival under pandemic and lockdown conditions –depends on all individuals having affordable access to internet services to be able to digitally substitute. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of digital substitution in times of crisis and the compounding effect of digital inequalities on structural inequalities without policy interventions to ensure that the opportunities to digitally substitute are more evenly distributed.
Between 2018 and 2022, the period encompassing the outbreak and containment of COVID-19, internet use in South Africa increased from 49% to 76%. The uptake of smartphones has enabled a greater reach of digital products, the gender access gap has reduced to almost zero and the gap between urban and rural areas is also declining. Although social-distancing regulations imposed by the government during COVID-19 resulted in an increase in digital activity which has persisted after the national state of disaster was declared over, it appears much of this was due to an increase in intensity of use by those already online. Those without meaningful access that would enable them to have a deeper digital engagement before the pandemic appeared unable to get online and would have been further marginalised from the digital economy.
This summary of the key impacts of COVID-19 across different areas is illustrative and far from exhaustive as the pandemic impacted on all aspects of individuals’ daily lives. What all the impacts have in common is a strong link with digitalisation as the recent global upsurge in digital activity was accelerated as a result of the demand for contactless solutions. In this way the digitalisation trends in South Africa are not only now heavily influenced by COVID-19, but have determined the degree to which different population groups have been able to counteract the negative socio-economic impacts of the virus and sustain their livelihoods in the period following the country’s national state of disaster.