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.