South African Connectivity

By Caitlin Fer­gu­son and Laura Mueller-Soppart

Take a walk around any US uni­ver­sity cam­pus and you will imme­di­ately notice stu­dents engrossed in tech­nol­ogy; from smart­phones to iPads and lap­tops, you would be hard pressed to find a col­lege stu­dent with­out imme­di­ate access to all the inter­net has to offer.

In the major­ity of the devel­op­ing world, though, you would be hard pressed to find this same level of con­nec­tiv­ity and online pro­duc­tiv­ity amongst col­lege stu­dents. Take South Africa, where 42 North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity stu­dents recently trav­eled to study and con­sult along­side local busi­ness stu­dents as part of the Social Enter­prise Insti­tute (SEI). These South African stu­dent part­ners study at a free busi­ness col­lege for tra­di­tion­ally dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents, called the Ter­tiary School in Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion (TSiBA).

A tech­no­log­i­cal divide emerges the first day of class in South Africa; North­east­ern stu­dents have their devices out, and TSiBA stu­dents have their pen and paper out. When project work begins, many TSiBA stu­dents move to their com­puter lab upstairs while North­east­ern stu­dents are mobile to take their work wherever.

The impact of this tech­no­log­i­cal divide goes far beyond basic con­nec­tiv­ity, though. A South African col­lege stu­dent with no per­sonal device is reliant on the avail­abil­ity of lim­ited resources at school. On a Sun­day evening, often­times the com­puter lab has a wait that forces stu­dents to return home, many to town­ships, past mid­night. The cash and hours it costs to use a com­puter for school, no mat­ter how big or small the assign­ment is unsus­tain­able for stu­dents and schools.

As such, it has been a tra­di­tion of North­east­ern stu­dents and SEI to give two lap­tops at the end of the course to two deserv­ing TSiBA stu­dents. To be con­sid­ered, these stu­dents must work hard through­out the course, engage with those around them, and come from chal­lenged back­grounds. This year, the two hard­work­ing stu­dents were Sibu and Athabile.

Sibu has always had self-proclaimed “hunger for knowl­edge.” Raised by her grand­mother in the town­ship of Gugulethu, Sibu attended mul­ti­ple pri­mary schools before her matric and enrolled at the Uni­ver­sity of the West­ern Cape with a desire to study law. Due to finan­cial and fam­ily con­straints, though, Sibu had to take two years off of school. Dur­ing this time, she hap­pened upon TSiBA and applied with the hope that she could go back to school.

At TSiBA, Sibu has begun to ful­fill her hunger for knowl­edge, and she sees the school as not only a place for study, but also a sup­port­ive fam­ily. In the future, she wants to work with youth: “My dream is to help change the atti­tudes of fel­low young peo­ple. I want them to real­ize their poten­tial, to be dri­ven, and to have vision.” As most South African stu­dents, though, Sibu knows she must first get a job that will sup­port her fam­ily from her grand­mother, to her two-year old nephew.

Atha­bile moved to Cape Town from the East­ern Province, a rural farm­ing region of South Africa, in search of a bet­ter edu­ca­tion. With the ulti­mate goal of trav­el­ing to the US, he set his sights on busi­ness. Inspired by sto­ries of Amer­i­can inno­va­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity, Atha­bile wants to one day bring those best prac­tices back home. His strong belief that through edu­ca­tion and tech­nol­ogy South Africa will achieve great­ness is jux­ta­posed with the fact that he has had to work every sin­gle day of col­lege to sup­port his fam­ily and was in his 20s the first time he had access to a com­puter. Beyond the many con­tra­dic­tions South Africa faces, Atha­bile is con­vinced of its con­tin­ued and future successes.

For both Sibu and Atha­bile, this com­puter means, “no more late nights at TSiBA and no more “omdraai” ( the late train we take back home in the evening).” Many regard Africa as a con­ti­nent of mobile phones chang­ing the face of infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing, and while this is true, mobile phones are not yet engines of cre­ation and aca­d­e­mic learn­ing.  Now, every hour Sibu and Atha­bile pre­vi­ously spent on the train can be used more pro­duc­tively and more directly towards accom­plish­ing their many admirable goals for a bet­ter South Africa, and a bet­ter world.