Digital sparseness and digital innovation in South Africa

Digital sparseness and digital innovation in South Africa

Much of what I’m writing about here I owe to the insights and research of my colleagues Alex Wafer, Kirstin Lardy, Delani Mathevula and Motswaedi. In fact a lot of it comes from a recent talk by Alex.

We know the digital divide very well. Much of economic and social life is now taking place through digital means. People’s ability to access and make use of it effectively is patterned by their economic and cultural capital. There are many layers to the divide. In fact it is less a divide than an overlapping set of centre-periphery relationships. Most users trade privacy for access and ‘free’ use of social media platforms. Some users can buy security and some cannot. Others have very limited, intermittent access. The platforms most users in the West encounter make some basic assumptions that are not correct: that users have always on connections at home, they can easily connect when outwith the home, their use is personal to them and they don’t have anyone looking over their should and so on. This is even less true in the developing world where there is extensive digital innovation alongside significant gaps in infrastructure. There is great developing world innovation – it’s by no means always a case of Western platforms/corporations colonising the space.

With my colleague and friend Alex Wafer of Wits University we are studying digital geographies in and around Johannesburg and the Gauteng province in South Africa. We have worked with Uber drivers, delivery drivers, and residents of unofficial settlements to examine how they use different digital platforms for economic and social life. Our interest is in the informal economy, though we note that really the formal and informal economies are symbiotic. For example, an unregulated transport infrastructure serves labour up to the central core of the formalised economy. Formal economies supply informal ones with resources, the informal economy provides the formal one with usually cheap, temporary labour. Digital platforms are used to communicate, to distribute labour and sometimes as substitute currencies. Digital sparseness applies to the infrastructure and the platforms. Rather than specialised platforms people re-task existing platforms in new ways, sometimes insecure such as using Facebook and Whatsapp for work and payment. Uber emerged as a trust/social credit system used to validate people for off-platform work. For example, a driver may get paid for one ride through Uber, then arrange further rides or other kinds of work through Whatsapp. That allows both customer and driver to use the platform to validate their association while not being dependent on it.

Digital sparseness is a critical problem and manifestation of multiple digital divides. We are dealing with a very sparse infrastructure both technically and physically. Only the better off people have a fixed at home connection. Others have to use mobile devices and scavenge power and data where they can. At there is little available wifi in many settlements people have ot pay for mobile airtime. However package bundles are often too large to be paid for at once. A social economy emerges where people distribute small amounts of data as ‘gifts’ to friends, acquaintances and family. This makes up for some of the limits in the formal data economy at the same time as it ties the very marginalised into it.

A theme that connected our two projects was the different attitude to labour, reflecting the class formation of the labour force in South Africa. As Alex put it, many people in the informal economy had ended up with such little luck in the labour force that they eschewed paid labour. Paid labour had either never been there or only led to precarity or exploitation. In its absence they engaged in the hustle, a tiring never ending activity to scare up trades and deals. Precarity affects the whole labour force though. Many uber drivers were well qualified for the formal economy but recent layoffs and contractions meant they were also unable to find work in it or came to prefer working for themselves. They then moved into the platform economy through Uber. Uber could work in many ways. It could be a way of finding work for informal migrants from the rest of Southern Africa who were shut out of both the formal economy in South Africa and the closed shop of the established taxi system. For some it was a stepping stone for South Africans seeking to put aside capital to start their own business. The Uber hustle was not quite like the informal economy hustle. But maybe we will all have to become used to one or the other.



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