Fighting Poverty Online in South Africa ; A Sowe to School Is Part of a Pilot Program That Aims to Give 1.5 Million Students Internet Access by 2006

Article excerpt

Ikaneng Primary School, a neat one-story brick building surrounded by a high metal fence and packed to the bursting point with 585 uniformed elementary school children, is a humble starting point for South Africa's Internet revolution.

Many children in this impoverished Soweto community, near the vast metropolis of Johannesburg, live in metal shacks or tiny, apartheid-era houses shared by multiple families. Their parents struggle to pay the few dollars a year in school fees and to keep them dressed in the school's navy uniform.

But under a program launched in June, Ikaneng has a working, though makeshift, computer lab. It is among 25 public schools in Gauteng Province - also home to the capital, Pretoria - due to receive new, Internet-wired computers by the end of this year. The Gauteng government's wider goal - in a first for this country - is to provide Internet access for all of the province's 1.5 million students by 2006. If successful, the plan could become a model for South Africa.

Some question, however, whether the push for technology access will come at the expense of schools' more basic needs, such as classrooms, teachers, and schoolbooks.

Gauteng has earmarked 500 million rand (about $60 million) over the next three years - nearly its entire equipment budget - to put 25 computers with Internet access in each the province's 2,400 public schools. The money will also send at least five teachers from each school to computer-training classes.

"It's a tool to fight poverty," says Lebelo Maloka, spokesman for the Gauteng department of education. "It will ensure that when students become citizens, they will be able to face the information highway. And it will also in the long run put South Africa in line with other [information technology] giants."

Africa lags far behind Europe and the US in terms of communications technology - there are more web hosts in New York City than on the entire continent. And although South Africa is by far the most-wired African nation, access to computers and the Internet remains largely limited to the white and wealthy.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has made reducing the digital divide one of his top priorities, and says that technological literacy will be key to the country's future in an increasingly globalizing world. At the recent Group of Eight summit in Genoa, Italy, Mr. Mbeki and other African leaders called on developed nations to support technology initiatives on their continent.

Gauteng's provincial effort is seen as an important pilot program for Mbeki's technology agenda. …