Fighting poverty online in South Africa

A Soweto school is part of a pilot program that aims to give 1.5 million students Internet access by 2006.

Ikaneng Primary School, a neat one-story brick building surrounded by a high metal fence and packed to the bursting point with 585 uniformed elementary school children, is a humble starting point for South Africa's Internet revolution.

Many children in this impoverished Soweto community, near the vast metropolis of Johannesburg, live in metal shacks or tiny, apartheid-era houses shared by multiple families. Their parents struggle to pay the few dollars a year in school fees and to keep them dressed in the school's navy uniform.

But under a program launched in June, Ikaneng has a working, though makeshift, computer lab. It is among 25 public schools in Gauteng Province - also home to the capital, Pretoria - due to receive new, Internet-wired computers by the end of this year. The Gauteng government's wider goal - in a first for this country - is to provide Internet access for all of the province's 1.5 million students by 2006. If successful, the plan could become a model for South Africa.

Some question, however, whether the push for technology access will come at the expense of schools' more basic needs, such as classrooms, teachers, and schoolbooks.

Gauteng has earmarked 500 million rand (about $60 million) over the next three years - nearly its entire equipment budget - to put 25 computers with Internet access in each the province's 2,400 public schools. The money will also send at least five teachers from each school to computer-training classes.

"It's a tool to fight poverty," says Lebelo Maloka, spokesman for the Gauteng department of education. "It will ensure that when students become citizens, they will be able to face the information highway. And it will also in the long run put South Africa in line with other [information technology] giants."

Africa lags far behind Europe and the US in terms of communications technology - there are more web hosts in New York City than on the entire continent. And although South Africa is by far the most-wired African nation, access to computers and the Internet remains largely limited to the white and wealthy.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has made reducing the digital divide one of his top priorities, and says that technological literacy will be key to the country's future in an increasingly globalizing world. At the recent Group of Eight summit in Genoa, Italy, Mr. Mbeki and other African leaders called on developed nations to support technology initiatives on their continent.

Gauteng's provincial effort is seen as an important pilot program for Mbeki's technology agenda. Proponents argue that computer literacy must begin early, and that investing in technology in schools now will pay important dividends later. But there are many who question whether Internet access should be the top priority, in a country where more than 90 percent of schools have no libraries, and there is a shortage of more than 50,000 classrooms. Located in the country's wealthiest and most urbanized school district, Gauteng schools have more basic services than most. But even here, 172 schools still do not have electricity.

"We're not opposed to the concept of giving people computer skills. That's great, we need to do that. The problem is the pragmatics of the situation," says David Quail, a spokesman on education for the opposition Democratic Alliance Party. "A lot of schools don't have sufficient classrooms. There are not sufficiently trained teachers. Until those concerns are addressed, I don't think you should try to give all schools computers."

Mr. Quail says that rather than trying to put computers in every school, the government should focus first on building strong computer programs in a few target schools.

But at Ikaneng, where a temporary, makeshift lab with about 12 computers has been set up in a heavily alarmed room, teachers and administrators say access to computers and information technology is opening up whole new worlds for their students.

"Each child has an e-mail address, and they can interact with children from other countries.... They have pen pals in America and New Zealand and are learning basic computer literacy," says Flora Lesele, the school's principal. "For the teachers, it will help them plan their classes."

A year ago, the school had a small computer bank funded by a private company, but the company withdrew the computers because most students couldn't afford to pay the $2.50 fee. Now, the school is waiting for its 25 new computers from the government to arrive.

Brenda Mamela, one of four Ikaneng teachers receiving computer training, can't wait for the new computers. She is excited to pass on her new knowledge to her 7- and 8-year-old students, and says she is constantly amazed at how quickly the children become technologically literate.

"Most of the time, you find the children helping us," she says with a laugh. "They tell us: 'No, no. You must do it this way.' The first computer training I went to, it was so difficult. I couldn't even hold the mouse. These kids learn so fast."

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