Computers in South Africa

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COMPUTERS IN SOUTH AFRICA

With its history of apartheid and its current mix of third- and first-world values, facilities, and services, the role of computer technology and the associated science in South Africa is different from most other countries, both in Africa and on other continents. Ethical considerations include such standard ones as employment, job losses, and social inclusion, but there are differences due to economic distortions caused by the legacy of apartheid.


Apartheid Legacy

Unemployment figures can be misleading in this economy. In the formal sector, unemployment seems to be at non-critical levels, but in the informal sector, joblessness is extremely high—2004 estimates are 40 percent—leading to crime and other social problems. South Africa nevertheless is very attractive to immigrants from other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and there has been an influx of people seeking work.

Most students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are studying computer science are under some pressure to earn an income as soon as possible after they gain their first qualification, as they may have families to support, often families that have scrimped and saved to send a chosen member to university. Hence the desire to continue with any research or postgraduate study is disproportionately clustered in the privileged community, which historically is mainly white. In addition, it is comparatively easy in this field for individuals with degrees to obtain well-paid jobs, further lessening the incentive to contribute to research in computer science. This trend exacerbates the predominantly white presence of academics. A similar situation was faced by women in the 1980s. At the same time, at the beginning of the twenty-first century there is a great spirit of entrepreneurial activity among individuals while they are students, and small and medium-sized enterprises are being developed in response to a diverse range of needs, from computerizing legal records to computer control of traffic lights, all of which were largely ignored because the apartheid machinery had no need to optimize them.


Ethical Applications and Issues

South Africa's history of apartheid has left the country with an unusual technological infrastructure. During the apartheid years, it built an intensive war economy, supported by research and development in universities and in industry. Educators in liberal educational institutions faced the dilemma that their students would end up as engineers and computer scientists supporting this industry, engaged in activities of, at best, dubious morality. This dilemma no longer exists, but the legacy of the infrastructure still does, and so there is an imbalance in appropriate technology and expertise that is yet to be resolved. Furthermore, there are many areas, including high-density ones such as the historical townships, where electrical and telephonic infrastructure remains underdeveloped, impacting the ability to use technology—it is relatively easy to obtain old computers that are still usable, but there are no power sockets into which to plug them.

The most extensive legacy of apartheid is, of course, a huge gap between rich and poor, which actually continues to increase. Computer technology has a role to play, both in contributing to the gap and in lessening it. Because South Africa has traditionally had a labor-intensive economy, with labor being cheap and plentiful, the computerization of various work functions readily removes unskilled workers from the labor force, thus increasing unemployment and poverty. At the same time, the innovative use of computer technology and the development of local industry such as the excellent mobile phone network tend to bridge the rich-poor divide. Indeed, mobile telephony is especially appropriate in a country that is geographically large and whose fixed line telephonic network has been concentrated exclusively in wealthy urban areas. Mobile telephony has also empowered entrepreneurs by allowing them easy and efficient communications without the need to invest in anything more than a prepaid mobile phone.

For similar reasons, free and open source software is being embraced in South Africa, as in many other countries (especially in the developing world). Some of these motivations have an ethical or political component, such as the desire to promote the local software industry rather than enrich foreign corporations, while the free software movement has always claimed an ethical basis for shunning proprietary code. The collaborative maintenance model of open source software also seems to have opened up new possibilities—for example, translations to languages ignored by mainstream software manufacturers: In the South African context, the work of The Translate Project (http://translate.org.za) stands out. The appropriate application of computational linguistics techniques also has the potential for fostering social inclusion, by using machine translation to enable text in only English or Afrikaans (historically the two official languages) to be translated to the other nine official languages of South Africa, which include Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and other indigenous tongues.

One issue that might not otherwise be thought related to computers is that of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa: Between 20 percent and 40 percent of the population is directly affected by the disease, with a significant fallout effect on those indirectly connected. Some educational institutes have taken the stance that all subject areas have an ethical responsibility to educate about and mitigate the effect of the epidemic. While HIV might seem to have no direct impact on areas such as computer science, this is not actually the case. Research is currently underway in areas such as bioinformatics (http://www.sanbi.ac.za), including, for example, the modeling of the development of viral activity. Additionally, the epidemic affects educational institutions on a daily basis simply because it affects individuals on a daily basis. Many university students are already supporting extended families, on wages from part-time employment, and when a parent has the virus, the burden falls on the supportive child to look after younger children. In education this can often have the effect that completing practical assignments or studying for exams is relegated to the second tier of priority, once the caring for others has been done, resulting in poor performance from otherwise capable students.

In a country where a lot of dialogue about constitutional issues has been taking place since the 1990s, it is appropriate that the new South African constitution gives strong rights to individuals to access all information, including electronic information, held about themselves, especially by government bodies. In August 2002, the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act became law. This is a wide piece of legislation pertaining to e-commerce and e-government, whose aim is to facilitate business, and it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. In contrast to the Data Protection Act of the UK, for example, there is no requirement for compliance. The chapter regarding personal information and privacy protection describes a voluntary regime that data collectors may subscribe to if they wish, so issues of personal privacy are still of concern.


SHEILA ROCK

SEE ALSO Computer Ethics; Digital Divide.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Stallman, Richard M. (2002). Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, ed. Goshua Gay. Boston: GNU press. This is a collection of essays and speeches about open source by Richard Stallman—one of the primary pioneers of the free software movement.


INTERNET RESOURCE

Electronic Communications and Transactions Act (2002), South Africa. Available from (http://www.internet.org.za/ect_act.html). The ECT act describing appropriate use of computer technology in commerce and government.

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