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Some things must fall — 2019 Affordability Report South Africa impact story

This impact story was written by Leah Junck as part of the 2019 Affordability Report, which was published on October 22. Illustration by Neema Iyer.

Pseudonyms are used for the names of people and most places to protect participants’ identities.

Tires are burning, veiling parts of the city of Cape Town, South Africa, in thick, black smoke. The N2, one of the main freeways leading into town is closed, jam-packing the city core with cars long after rush hour traffic. Once again, people are protesting a lack of service delivery. Or so it is conversationally assumed – the local news only mention the obstruction to traffic itself. It is a week after president Cyril Ramaphosa held his state of the nation address, promising to take measures promoting a social transformation. Part of his strategy is to bring down ‘excessively high data costs’ in the country, which he explained to be ‘essential both for economic growth and for unleashing opportunities for young people’.

The systematically obstructed route is the same one 35-year-old Grace takes from Gugulethu, a local shantytown, to the prestigious University of Cape Town (UCT), which is sloped against the iconic table mountain. Here, she has been keeping the Department of Economics clean and equipped with basic utilities for the past nine years. The mother of an 8-year-old is originally from Elembu, a town in the rural parts of the Eastern Cape. The second largest province of South Africa came into existence at the nominal end of the racially segregating Apartheid regime in 1994, incorporating various areas. Grace moved towards Cape Town when she was 11 years old and has since lived on the city’s informally structured outskirts with her aunt and dependents. She would go back to Elembu whenever she could in order to escape the crowdedness of Gugulethu and spend time with her grandmother when she was still alive. In her hometown, she would ‘catch reception’ much like an occasional butterfly that has to be chased across the sparsely populated yards, acres and hills, Grace explains with a smile, shaking her head.

In Gugulethu, she watched smartphones becoming a more and more common sight in recent years. About a year ago, she changed her prepaid provider after she had grown frustrated with the gaps in network coverage of her then provider. Equally important in the decision was the fact that the package deal for the application she uses for most of her phone communication was more affordable with the new provider. However, she adds, prices have already changed in the meantime, rendering the change not worthwhile. Unless she is at work and has access to Wi-Fi, Grace uses the communication application only for short messages in order to preserve her data package. At work, she may send a voice note or make a call via the app instead. ‘Airtime finishes quickly’, she explains and due to high prepaid prices, most people she knows buy phone data for R30 (about $2) at a time. Yet, continuously buying small amounts of data often adds up to a rather significant sum. Recently, Grace has heard that there are now Wi-Fi hotspots available in some of the largest local informal settlements but she is not quite sure how to gain access to them. She only knows that vouchers can be purchased for R5 per day ($ 0,35). However, for the 25,2% of the population living below the food poverty line, even this initiative does not grant them access to the internet and the opportunities it holds in terms of information and networking.

The name Gugulethu is a contraction of the Xhosa words igugu lethu, meaning ‘our pride’. Just like the many other underdeveloped urban regions surrounding it, Gugulethu was one of the areas designed for ‘non-whites’. In one of the largest mass removals in modern history, many people of color were forcibly removed from their urban homes and resettled distant to the core and economic hub of the so called mother city between 1960 and 1983. The initial purpose of socio-economic segregation largely prevails until today. Even though the areas are tucked away from the popular tourist sights and wealthy areas of the city, the geographic separateness itself and the local improvised dwellings, put together from discarded objects, render the stark contrasts of unequal junctures of lived experience apparent to anyone willing to expose their eyes to it. Apart from the makeshift landscape, there are hardly any economic opportunities in areas like Gugulethu. Basic public services either do not reach the areas, are unreliable or insufficient. The density of the population and unfavorable fortuitousness of being largely confined to a space that offers little access and liberties to explore one’s skills and desires also translates onto high crime rates.

The geographic lines of segregation inherited from the Apartheid regime are still largely in place in Cape Town (in spite of a growing middle class) and economic gaps continue to coincide with physically dividing areas and certain concepts of race, which are still in use (English or Afrikaans ‘white’, ‘colored’ and ‘black’). Unemployment in South Africa is ripe with 27,2 % of the population being without a stable income. Many people are thus forced to work under precarious conditions in informal sectors. More reliable opportunities to access the internet have only become a reality in more recent years in South Africa – for those who can afford it. Although the internet user base in South Africa has overall grown quite dramatically since the year 2000 (from 5,35% of the population to 53,4% in 2019), high internet prices have kept many people from being steadily connected. Fiber was only recently introduced to the more affluent urban neighborhoods and even people who are privileged enough to inhabit them find fiber costs to be disproportionate to their income with rent in the city having increased dramatically in recent years and costs for food, insurance and other fixed costs also being high. Given these barriers and the allocated time frame, plans declaring to connect all 22 million South Africans by 2020 in the ‘internet for all’ initiative seem like an ambitious task at hand. The partnership between the Department of Telecommunication and Postal Services, its social partners and the World Economic Forum (WEF) is in the process of forming a steering committee that intends to connect underserved areas, lower internet costs and provide skills.

Grace repeatedly targeted UCT as a potential employer, looking for work as a personal assistant. She went to High School in Phillipi, a settlement neighboring Gugulethu, as her aunt considered the education standard to be somewhat better compared to other informal areas. The school fees in the city itself are unattainable for most people maintaining themselves with occasional jobs in the city center like her aunt. Upon finishing school, Grace took up a cleaning job to support her aunt, who had been the sole breadwinner of the household up until then. Simultaneously, she completed a short course at a suburban college and applied for personal assistant jobs at the university, as the salary there would be higher than elsewhere. She was never contacted in response to her efforts and only became part of campus life when she started working for a cleaning service company.

In 2015, the protest movement #Rhodesmustfall demanded the decolonization of the campus and rapidly spread to other campuses in the country. Initially, the protests were directed against a statue towering in the center of UCT campus and depicting the infamous colonialist Cecil Rhodes. As the movement continued stirring, the memorial became symbolic for the demand of equal opportunities and access to education and humane living conditions for all. Part of the movement’s demand for sustainable social transformation was for the UCT staff to be insourced, who were working under exploitative conditions and a living wage of about $200 per month, Grace explains. Her salary has now increased and she perceives there to be more understanding for her situation since she has been employed by the university. In spite of this change, she still struggles to cover her daughter Dululu’s school fees to ensure she gets educated in the suburb. She also continues supporting her aunt as well as her sister’s child. Between these costs and her medical bills that the basic aid the university is now obliged to provide does not cover she finds herself hard-pressed every month.

The free Wi-Fi access on the university’s campus provides Grace with the opportunity to access homework assignments and educational games for her daughter, who joins her at work after primary school. Dululu then goes from office to office and has little chats with the faculty staff, who seem to enjoy entertaining her with little math tasks. Given that she has the opportunity to go to a suburban school, a circumstance her mother emphasizes with pride, some of the learning components are online, which Grace downloads onto her phone as she does not own a laptop. She also helps Dululu look up information online for her assignments and explains the content to her. ‘We didn’t know a lot of things in our days’, Grace explains. ‘For them, they learn things quickly because if they don’t know how to do whatever – they just go online and they search, what does that mean, so they know.’

When Grace has a moment in the day, is connected to the Wi-Fi and her daughter is not using the phone, she catches up on local entertainment shows and the news online. When Dululu is in charge of the phone, the second-grader looks up her favorite cartoons by herself. The shows she watches are in English, as is her entire school education apart from one subject. When she was young, Grace says, cartoons were in her home language isiXhosa. By now, Dululu has almost entirely unlearnt her mother’s tongue and rarely communicates in it.

At the moment, Dululu wants to become a doctor, Grace explains. But, she adds, a few weeks back it was teaching and before that becoming a pilot – ‘so let’s see’. If education actually becomes free and easier to access for South Africans from all walks of life as per protest demands, Dululu may benefit from this contemporary moment of change that was sparked at the very place she playfully spends her afternoons at.

Many have criticized that eliminating university costs for the poor is not enough. The educational system favors those who can afford private schooling and leaves those growing up in rural areas and shantytowns with little opportunities to realize whatever dreams they may be cultivating. Better access to the internet (and thus to information and opportunities of growth) and learning how to use it safely may increase the likelihood for those forced to learn their skills and get a sense of their abilities in under-staffed and over-crowded public school classrooms to actually get to the stage of applying to a university to begin with.

There is an aura of relinquish calm surrounding Grace when she talks about her own story and her daughter’s future. She is well aware that the realities that the majority of South Africans still live in today are complexly interlinked. There are no quick fixes that ‘unleash opportunities’ for the next generation, as politicians have been promising for the past 25 years. Yet, South Africans are also aware that this realization serves as fuel for a sentiment of resignation and a failure to tackle issues of equal access to knowledge and opportunities. For the time being, Grace is more concerned with keeping her daughter healthy and safe, in spite of the hazards and insecurities her living situation exposes them to.

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