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
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. …