Working Towards Universal Internet Access and Digital Equality in South Africa

By Izak Minnaar |

“All South Africans – and especially those who cannot afford it and other vulnerable groups – need a daily first tranche of free internet access to exercise their basic human rights such as access to government services, participating in the digital economy, looking for jobs, online communication and for learners and students to access online educational resources.  This is the only way to achieve universal access to information and digital equality amongst our citizens, including the rural poor who have access to mobile phones.”

This is the call made by the South African online and media industry bodies, the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), the Interactive Advertising Bureau South Africa (IABSA) and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), with the support of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international network of human rights organisations and advocacy groups for access to information.

At the 2019 International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) commemoration in Pretoria, they expressed the need for a national effort to coordinate existing legislation, policies and initiatives to provide citizens with a basic level of universal free internet access, coinciding with the launch of a report titled Universal Access to the Internet and Free Public Access in South Africa.

The group noted that while the South African government has made domestic and international commitments to take steps towards achieving universal access to online information, these commitments cannot be achieved without providing for a level of free access, in particular for disadvantaged and marginalised groups who would otherwise not be able to enjoy internet access.

The report proposes a seven-point plan which will assist the government with proposals to take steps towards progressively realising a basic level of universal free access to online information, both within the government itself and through engagements with private entities and other stakeholders.

The proposed plan endeavours to provide a comprehensive approach to universal and free internet access, from the gradual introduction of free municipal wifi as a basic service and access at other government sites, underpinned by a set of standards for free access, to digital literacy programmes.  Full details of these proposals are captured in the report.

The universal internet access proposals are part of a three pronged approach to achieve the objectives as set out in the SA Promotion of Access to Information Act (2000), to “actively promote a society in which the people of South Africa have effective access to information to enable them to more fully exercise and protect all of their rights”

First, it must be made easier for citizens to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to access information. A major improvement in the law will be to make provision for pro-active disclosure of information, as prescribed by the African Model Law on Access to Information, published by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2013.  A major review and update of PAIA is required, beyond the current process to add clauses on party funding.

The second issue – and a logical consequence of pro-active disclosure – is for information holders and access to information activists to vigorously pursue the open data and open government agenda. As a founder member of the United Nations initiated Open Government Partnership (OGP), the South African government has already made ambitious commitments to establish open data portals, with projects ranging from Open Justice, Open Budget (such as the Vulekamali and Municipal Money data portals) and Open Elections, all of which are in different stages of implementation.  However, South Africa still needs to deliver on a number of commitments made in its OGP National Action Plan.

With all this information available online, the third requirement to ensure “effective access to information” as PAIA requires, is to provide universal access to the internet.   In 2016 the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights called on African governments to take legislative and other measures “to guarantee, respect and protect citizen’s right to freedom of information and expression through access to internet services”.

A 2017 APC Issue Paper initiated by the same group of online and media organisations, titled Perspectives on Universal Free Access to Online Information in South Africa: Free Public Wifi and Zero-Rated Content lists South African legislation and polices dealing with  the need for citizens to have the means, capacity and skills to fully participate in a digitally driven democracy and economy, in line with the vision expressed in the National Development Plan of universal access to the internet and an e-literate public.

The seven-point plan is an effort by the online and media industry bodies to provide government and industry with practical plans to implement the existing legislation and policies.

This presentation provides an overview of the seven-point plan and was shared at the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2019 (FIFAfrica19) which was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.