Palesa Ramolefo is a 25-year-old activist working with Amandla.Mobi, a campaigning organisation based in South Africa. She was also one of the campaigners behind the #DataMustFall campaign in South Africa. All images by Thom Pierce.
I’ll never forget the first time I used the web. My uncle was a scientist, and had access to a laptop, and one day he brought it over to show me. And suddenly I was able to reach out to a whole other world. He showed me Wikipedia. I looked up animals, things curious kids want to look up. But that wasn’t my everyday reality.
There are richer areas and poorer areas of Soweto, but I suppose I would call the place where I grew up a low-income environment. There weren’t that many people around me, neighbours or friends, who could afford to access the internet at all. There was no internet at school. When I eventually went to a school in a different area where we had access to computers, it was a real struggle, especially compared to the other kids who had been around the internet more than I had. I made a friend, Karen, and I remember how much she helped me to work it out. But even then it didn’t seem fair, that difference in what we knew and could do.
Did the internet change my ideas about what was possible, what I could do with my life? Absolutely. The internet made me realise that there was a whole other world I could be part of. I mean, there was a time I wanted to be a DJ. And there’s nothing wrong with being a DJ! But I only wanted to be a DJ because my neighbour was a DJ. It was right there, all I saw, all I knew. But being on the internet showed me that I could do more.
I studied journalism after school, and of course by then there were computer labs and we were able to access the web pretty easily. But I met fellow students there who hadn’t left the local school, who hadn’t been as fortunate as I had been, and I found myself helping them to use computers, let alone figure out how to navigate online.
I felt guilty that I had experienced some sort of privilege, that I had this skill and this experience, even though we came from the same community. I remember having to help one student work out basics like how to use a keyboard, how to use a mouse, how to interact with the screen. I mean, this is what happens when you have absolutely no access from primary school all through to high school. And it’s still happening now. And it’s such a common story across the whole country.
And so now I’m an activist. All these things, all these experiences, made me want to take action so that it could be better for other people. And things have to change.
Access is everything. Connectivity is relevant and important for everyone. It’s not just for young people. I just think of my grandmother, who lives in a village in the Free State. If I want to send her money, I need internet access. And she needs internet access to see that money has come into her account. It’s easy for me. I live in Jo’burg, with wifi hotspots, infrastructure. She has to travel many kilometres into town just to check her bank balance. And that’s someone who has a phone! She has the right device. There are just so many barriers to her being able to use it properly, to make her life easier.
Meaningful connectivity needs to be prioritised. We can’t have leaders who are inaccessible to people living in Tembisa or Alexandra or Soweto or other places where connectivity is limited.
As an activist, I always say that the work I do here is about what affects me directly, as a young woman in South Africa. And it’s so easy, when looking at South Africa, to point out other issues affecting young women that seem like more of an emergency than access to data. But the thing is, everything we do is on the web. Everything we need is on the web. If I have no water, or no electricity, or have any other thing I need to change, how am I going to tell people who can fix it? How am I going to be heard?