South Africa is one of the largest economies and best connected societies in Africa, with over 51% of South Africans online (ITU, 2015). But are Internet prices in the country truly affordable to all citizens? This was the question a South African parliamentary committee set out to answer last week, with A4AI team members invited to appear as expert witnesses and provide international context.
The conversation was given extra impetus when a campaign called #datamustfall was launched by a local radio personality the week before the hearing. The hashtag #datamustfall trended top on social media for days before the hearing, and saw hundreds of thousands of South Africans come together to complain about high data prices, and demand that networks make a change within 30 days.
Onica Makwakwa, A4AI’s Africa Regional Coordinator, and Dillon Mann, the Web Foundation’s Communications Director, told the committee that:
- Internet access is a right, not a privilege. Noting the recent UN declaration on the importance of Internet access, and South Africa’s strong commitment to human rights, Onica and Dillon urged the Committee to consider access as a right — not a privilege — and to take urgent steps to ensure all South Africans could benefit from connectivity.
- Tens of millions of South Africans do not find the Internet affordable. At first glance, South Africa seems to meet the UN target for “affordable Internet” — 500MB of mobile data priced at no more than 5% of monthly income — with prices clocking in at 1.5%. But income inequality in South Africa is high, and when one digs into the numbers, a very different picture emerges. Using the very latest data available from the World Bank and the ITU, we calculated that the poorest 20% of South Africans would have to spend 14% of their income for just 500MB of data, while the next 20% of earners would have to spend 6.5% of their monthly incomes. This means that tens of millions in the country remain unable to access the life-changing potential of the Web affordably, even if the richest 20% enjoy very affordable access.
- South Africa is lagging behind many of its peers, both on price and policy. Research ICT Africa’s RAMP pricing data shows that a 1GB data bundle is cheaper in 15 African countries than it is in South Africa. A4AI’s own Affordability Drivers Index (which measures policies in place to drive affordability), ranked South Africa 19th out of 51 countries globally, and 6th on the African continent. This means there is scope to use policy more effectively to drive prices down.
In order to enable more affordable access for a wider swathe of South Africans, we encouraged the committee to (1) ensure that policies are aligned with A4AI’s Policy & Regulatory Good Practices, (2) prioritise public access programmes while also working to reduce prices, (3) investigate innovative solutions like community-owned networks (something the Right2Know campaign presented details on later in the hearings), and (4) ensure that gender equality is considered in all policies.
The Committee is now preparing a report and recommendations, and has indicated that it will ask the National Assembly to debate the topic and adopt its suggestions. Perhaps what we’re most excited about is the clear proof that Internet affordability has now become an issue that politicians and business leaders can no longer afford to ignore. After #FASTAfrica brought millions together across 20 African countries on the same topic just a few months ago, #datamustfall has proven again that this is an issue citizens care about. Leaders from all sectors must now respond — or risk votes and profit.
We hope that data prices will fall soon, for all South Africans. Stay tuned for updates!