Bridging the Digital Divide in South Africa

Linda Martindale, Linux Journal

South Africa has 11 official languages. It also has one of the greatest divides between rich and poor in the world, and this divide is most evident in the technology area. The IT world unwittingly has excluded the masses as technology has raced on leaving many South Africans behind. Socio-economic circumstances, imbalanced education policies under the apartheid regime, as well as language barriers, are some of the factors recognised in this exclusion.

Dr Neville Alexander, political activist, who was imprisoned on Robben Island during ex-president Nelson Mandela’s time there, and director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, has been a key player in the language debate. He emphasises the need to move away from being a monolinguistic society:

An English-only, or even an English-mainly, policy necessarily condemns most people, and thus the country as a whole, to a permanent state of mediocrity, since people are unable to be spontaneous, creative and self-confident if they cannot use their first language.

Navigating the cyber world is daunting enough for first-time travelers, without having to do it in a language that is not their own. The translation of computer programmes into South African languages such as Xhosa was virtually uncharted territory until last year. Most computer software is only available in English and poorly supported in South Africa’s second language, Afrikaans. The other nine official languages are not visible in any form of software—interesting when considering that Zulu is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, with Xhosa a close second.

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