So expensive are internet charges in South Africa that popular radio DJ and media personality Thabo 'Tbo Touch' Moleme started the #DataMustFall movement that put pressure on mobile network operators to reduce their exorbitant data bundle fees.
In a move that has given a gleam of hope to the youth of South Africa, the government and several other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have made it possible for young people to access the internet free of charge. This has been made possible through the rolling out of free WiFi hotspots, mostly in disadvantaged townships, throughout the country.
The much-appreciated WiFi hotspots are mostly found at libraries, city parks, taxi/ bus stations, and public schools.
Youth Time reporter Farai Diza visited one of the popular hotspots at a public library in Diepsloot (a sparsely populated township in northern Johannesburg) to find out just what it means for the youth of South Africa to gain access to free internet.
On arrival at the main library, young people could be seen busy on their phones outside the library gate. They do not necessarily have to enter the premises to connect their devices as the library’s WiFi covers a large radius. This gives them an opportunity to access it while seated in the shade close to the library.
Twenty-three-year-old Thembinkosi Khuzwayo said that he had been accessing the free internet for the past two years at the library and it had enabled him to partake in and complete a number of MOOC courses.
"As you know, the City of Johannesburg Council is bent on empowering the city’s youth through a number of programmes, so I decided to increase my employment opportunities by gaining new skills through their MOOC tertiary programmes. I have successfully completed a number of the courses and my CV is now very healthy. It is difficult to gain any form of employment without having taken courses after completing high school".
"Now I am using the WiFi hotspot to look for a job and send my CV to potential employers. I am hopeful that one day all my efforts will bear fruit, because I have put in so much time and effort into this. If it wasn’t for the free WiFi hotspot then I would most probably have fallen into alcohol and drug abuse like most peers my age," he added.
Other young people can relate to Thembinkosi. The free online courses that were rolled out a number of years ago for disadvantaged young people who could not afford to attend tertiary colleges and universities are very popular in townships throughout South Africa.
"I passed my matrix, but my parents could not afford to send me to college to study further. So as a result I ended up just coming to the library to read a variety of general knowledge books so that my mind would not be idle. So during my library visits I found out about the free online courses and I decided to give it a go. I must admit that it has really given me hope of one day furthering my studies,'' said Stella Ngubeni, who travels for about two kilometres to the library almost every day.
But studying isn't the only thing that makes young adults converge at WiFi hotspots in large numbers. In a country that has an ever-growing unemployment rate, you people are always online searching for opportunities.
'"I work in the informal sector so I am looking for another job. I come to this hotspot every time I get the chance and I visit popular websites such as Gumtree, Olx, and Indeed to search for jobs. It isn't easy because there are a lot of scamsters out there who are always ready to pounce on people like us. But that does not deter me from trying, because I know the fundamental rules of safely using the internet," said Bruce Ncube, an immigrant from neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Free WiFi hotspots have somehow become a 'basic human right' for township youth. Every young person clamours for a chunk of it. For instance, 20-year-old Masakhe Koentle has been using it to boost the online profile of her business. She advertises her services on various websites and according to her, results have been coming.
Several other young people have been using the free internet to catch up on social network websites such as the popular Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some have also been using it to download the latest movies and music which they then share with their peers at home.
No matter how they use the free internet, it has definitely made a huge difference in the lives of many South African disadvantaged youth.