By Stella Bvuma

When President Ramaphosa recently said, “digital transformation has to be harnessed to change the way we live, learn, work and govern”, I had no doubt that he was including township and rural communities of South Africa. These areas should not be viewed as strangers to the digital revolution that is currently making waves across the globe, which is important for the economic growth of the country. Technologies such as the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) have in one way or the other ‘touched base’ with the rural and township communities and are seen to have the potential to develop and improve their social, economic, and environmental conditions. These technological changes we are experiencing, led by the digital revolution, are not necessarily new. They are seen to be advancing from the hardware and software to the more the digital platform driven by artificial intelligence.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the unbalanced distribution of digital technologies where many sectors have changed their strategy to accommodate these shifts. Various organisations have embraced working remotely, shifting operations to digital platforms. However, the shifts also exacerbated the digital divide. This is by no means a new phenomenon, but it is magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact it has brought on the economy, bringing some sectors to their knees.

One cannot help but think of SMMEs operating in townships and rural areas, which brings the issue of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. If you do not have ICT infrastructure, you may as well forget about digitally transforming your business. It stands to reason that technology and education are the main equalisers and that they both carry positive transformation. If we are to create enabling environments and an inclusive economy, we need to create inclusive digitisation across all corners of the country. We cannot continue to have the rural and township communities disproportionally left behind, particularly in this 4IR era.

We are in dire need of a digital ecosystem that will foster innovation and growth, with emerging technologies providing new insights, and allowing for new ways to scale and leverage innovation. The digital ecosystem needs to ensure our communities are equipped with the technologies, alongside lifelong learning, to efficiently address our socio-economic challenges. Township and rural communities can only be meaningfully considered as part of the economy if such communities are connected to the digital grid.

Now is the time to face reality and tackle many of our enduring challenges intensified by unequal digital access. When we digitise we may have a unique opportunity to bring government closer to communities and improve service delivery. To realise this opportunity, we need both the private and public sectors to work together to increase access to affordable, reliable technology for the entire South African population, not just for the urban few. We also need to involve trade unions, the technical community, private and various stakeholders in our quest for a digitally enabled recovery that strengthens the inclusiveness and resilience of our economies.

Township and rural communities can only be meaningfully considered as part of the economy if such communities are connected to the digital grid.