South Africa now more unequal than under apartheid: report

The World Wide Web Foundation has released the 2014­/15 edition of The Web Index, the world’s first measure of the World Wide Web’s contribution to social, economic, and political progress across 86 countries.

The 2014/­15 Web Index report revealed that Web users are at an increasing risk of indiscriminate government surveillance.

It further showed that laws preventing bulk mass surveillance are weak or non­existent in over 84% of countries, up from 63% in 2013.

“Online censorship is on the rise. Moderate or extensive Web censorship has been seen in 38% of countries over the past year,” the report stated.

“Online organising leads to offline change. Despite a sharp deterioration in the overall environment for press freedom in nearly every country studied, the Web and social media are making a major contribution to sparking citizen action in three in five of the countries studied,” the report said.

“Meanwhile, in over 60% of countries, women are using the Web to claim and exercise their rights to a moderate or extensive degree.”

According to the report, true net neutrality remains a rarity. A world-­first assessment of net neutrality across countries found only around a quarter of nations effectively enforce clear rules against commercial or political discrimination in the management of Internet traffic.

Another finding was that online gender-based violence was not being tackled effectively.

“In 74% of Web Index countries, including many high-­income nations, law enforcement agencies and the courts are failing to take appropriate actions in situations where Web­-enabled ICTs are used to commit acts of gender-­based violence,” said the report.

Almost 60% of the world’s people cannot get online, whilst half of all Web users live in countries which severely restrict their rights online.

4.3 billion people have no access to the Web at all, while at least 1.8 billion more face severe violations of their rights to privacy and freedom of expression when they go online.

Reflecting on the findings, Sir Tim Berners-­Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, said it was time to recognise the Internet as a basic human right.

“That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring Internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of Web users regardless of where they live,” said Berners-Lee.

South Africa

The 2014/­15 Web Index report had the following to say about South Africa:

For decades, apartheid South Africa competed with junta-ruled Brazil for the title of most unequal country in the world.

Unlike Brazil, however, South Africa has become more unequal since its transition to democracy.

Heavy spending on social grants is not enough to bridge the divides created by a dysfunctional education system, high levels of unemployment, and extreme wage inequality.

“The returns from economic growth favour the organized, the educated, the highly skilled and the well connected,” says economist Haroon Bhorat.

But rather than using its excellent communications infrastructure as a tool to address these fundamental challenges, the South African government has been content to allow mobile cellular and broadband prices to remain among the highest in the world.

Internet uptake has grown relatively fast in recent years with the spread of smartphones, but users are disproportionately affluent and well-educated.

Less than 20% of those beneath the poverty line are Internet users, according to household survey research.

Three-quarters of users are urban and over 40% are fluent in English. Hence, under the current policy regime, it is hard not to conclude that technology is deepening economic and social inequalities in South Africa.

Politicians’ apparent apathy on access and affordability may be related to an increasing climate of secrecy in government that makes the free flow of information and views online a “national security threat” rather than a boon.

In 2013, the government developed two new laws restricting the rights to information and freedom of expression: the Protection of State Information Bill (not yet passed), which criminalises reporting on classified state information and intentionally accessing leaked information online; and the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Act, which authorises state security agencies to intercept “foreign signals intelligence” without a warrant.

Nevertheless, South Africans remain determined to exercise their hard-won democratic rights online as much as offline.

In cases such as the death of a man dragged behind a police truck in early 2013, and the ongoing controversy over government spending on President Jacob Zuma’s private estate, Nkandla, citizens are using photos and videos taken on cell phones and circulated by social media to challenge the official version of the facts and force the authorities to account for their actions.

Shortly after the government attempted to douse the Nkandla debate by declaring it illegal to publish photos of Zuma’s villa, a journalist’s tweet giving the Google Earth coordinates of the compound went viral on Twitter.

The hashtag #Nkandla instantly became a trending topic, “with some enraged South Africans using recent Nkandla pictures as their profile pictures on social media as a sign of defiance,” according to the SA Times.

South Africa’s Web Index ranking

South Africa Web Index rank
South Africa Web Index rank

South Africa ranked 45 out of 86 countries with an overall Web Index score of 45.82.

South Africa’s ranking in sub-indexes are as follows:

  • Universal Access – 45 out of 86
  • Freedom and Openness – 38 out of 86
  • Relevant content – 56 out of 86
  • Empowerment – 49 out of 86

How to fight inequality

To leverage the power of technology to fight inequality, the Web Foundation is calling on policymakers to:

  • Accelerate progress towards universal access by increasing access to affordable Internet and ensuring that everyone can use the Web all of the time, safely, freely, and privately.
  • Level the playing field by preventing price discrimination in Internet traffic, and treating the Internet like any other public utility.
  • Invest in high-quality public education for all to ensure that technological progress doesn’t leave some groups behind.
  • Promote participation in democracy and protect freedom of opinion by reversing the erosion of press freedom and civil liberties, using the Web to increase government transparency, and protecting the freedoms of speech, association, and privacy.
  • Create opportunities for women and poor and marginalised groups by investing more in ICTs to overcome key barriers in health, education, agriculture, and gender equity.

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South Africa now more unequal than under apartheid: report