A Glimmer of HOPE

Published: 01-FEB-04

In the poorer and denser parts of i Johannesburg, including the down town flatlands, townships and informal settlements, very few people have access to the internet. Similarly only a few people own computers, and many do not understand how to access the Internet. Harrison Ndlovu takes a closer look at the situation.

This contrasts with the northern parts of the city, where most people are computer literate and almost every household has a computer and access to the Internet. Nonetheless, downtown Jo'burg residents have the Internet provided by the few Internet cafes that struggle to serve the huge community. It has been noted that very few business people want to venture into the Internet business. For instance in Hillbrow, a high-rise suburb with more than 100,000 people, there are only two active Internet cafes to cater for the whole suburb.

The one in Esselen Street started operating three years ago. Gaining access into it means going through two security gates. The attendant, Davis Sikhonde says thai is a security precaution against getting robbed of computers and cash.

"We used to keep the doors open so that our customers could come in without all this bother, but we've realised that we can be robbed at any time so the shop has to be barred," Sikhonde says.

It is very hot inside the Internet cafe and human odour hangs in the air as the small place is crowded. Those who arrived early enough are behind the computers and clicking away, while others sit on the few available chairs or stand as they wait for their turn, which normally comes after about 30 minutes. Each customer pays a minimum of ZAR5 to use a computer for 35 minutes. There is no privacy as anyone can read what is on any of the screens.

To prove that, a man comments about the amount of spam that is displayed on another's screen. The place also incorporates a public phone system and is noisy. Added to that is music that belts out of a cassete player inside the shop. The computers are earlier and slower models that often frustrate the customers, who periodically vent their frustrations by shouting at the attendant for assistance.

Since the advent of the Nigerian 419 internet scam notices on the walls dissuade clients from practising that sort of fraud from there. The notice, also found in other Internet outlets, reads: "If you are found doing the 419 scam you will be reported to the police immediately."

The second Internet cafe in Hillbrow is in Kotze Street. It has features similar to those of the one in Esselen Street. There a security guard controls access and conducts random searches. Clients have to register and open accounts in order to be allowed to use the machines, which makes for faster service. That one is relatively quieter, and the computers are powerful state- of-the-art models. The machines are positioned in such a manner that the monitors face upwards from glass screens, which provides privacy in that other people cannot easily see what is on another's screen. This shop is also nearly always fully occupied, and unfortunately for those who have to wait there are no chairs for the purpose, so they have to stand, but many prefer to rather leave.

Current situation

The shortage of information technology facilities in the suburb contrasts with the 2000-2001 mushrooming of Internet cafes. In that period it seemed there would be an Internet cafe in every street, as is the case with public telephone booths that mushroomed at about the same time. In that period, up to 2002, many of those closed abruptly, for reasons that ranged from being suspected of involvement in crime to using stolen equipment. It would be unlikely that any closed because they ran short of customers.

In 2001 there was one in Klein Street that however seemed not to be open to the general public, and only used by selected customers. The proprietor seemed to make an effort to discourage customers from coming there, as if he really did not want them there, which led rumour mongers to allege that the place was the centre of illegal IT activities. Soon police raided the place and seized its equipment on allegations of links with 419 scammers and producing fraudulent official documents.

Two more, one in Edith Cavell Street and another in Twist, also closed after the authorities laid similar charges against them. A further two more, one in Pretoria Street and another in Catherine just closed overnight without any warning to its customers. However local rumour said they faced similar allegations. The same happened to another that was in Tudhope Avenue in nearby Berea, and another that was in Minors Street in Yeoville.

All those Internet outlets were run mostly by Nigerian and Congolese nationals. Incidentally, when they closed the sign 'Internet Cafe' remained on the walls, giving a false impression that the outlets are still in operation.

A Hillbrow business person who provides public phone, fax and photocopying facilities, Edson Mawela says he once considered starting an information technology business, but decided it would be too risky for him. "Computers pose a particular attraction to burglars in this area. They think the machines can bring them fortunes in the black market, so if you own a computer here you are very likely to be burgled at any time. Besides, every day we see the cops raiding Internet outlets because they suspect them of this and that, so I would not venture into that kind of business," he says.

Nonetheless, they could not really have closed completely, but probably moved elsewhere. Soon after that such outlets, often run by the same Nigerians and Congolese, appeared in the northern suburbs. There too, some of them were raided by the authorities over the same old allegations, one example being the one that was in Balfour Park that was allegedly in cahoots with 419 scammers and produced fake official documents.

Yeoville's Rockey Street is one place that boasts of having several Internet outlets, though they too cannot satisfy the demand from the high-density area. In just about 200 metres of the street, between Fortesque and Bezuidenhout streets, there are about six Internet shops. Nearly all of those share the common crowdedness, noise and human odour. Again to highlight the prevalence of the 419-letter scam, all those outlets bear the familiar warnings that discourage fraudsters from practising their trade from there.

One that is near the Cavendish Street intersection faces the Yeoville market, from where very loud maskandi music belts out of a loudspeaker, drowning conversation inside the Internet shop. Another is just round the corner in the same block, run by a man called George Guitanelis, who has a great sense of humour and is popular with his customers. He also registers his customers, many of whom pay in advance and do not need to bother the next time they want to use the computers. The place is also nearly always full, with more customers waiting for their turn.

However, Guitanelis' Internet Cafe is next to two noisy pubs, one just next door and another across the street. But it seems his clients have grown used to the noise and go it easy with their work, and besides, inside, conversation is very loud. In the CBD, another place that has thousands of potential IT enthusiasts, one would expect to see many Internet cafes, but that is not the case.

The same is the case with the townships, where there are few, if any, Internet outlets, and people who live there often have to get to town to queue up in the few Internet cafes, which severely stretches their meagre budgets.


In spite of that, many people do have computers in the poorer areas of the city. However, most of the machines are earlier models that may not be used to access the Internet, or owners do not afford required telephone and Internet fees, courtesy of the poverty that grips the area. As for the informal settlements none has an Internet cafe, and most people there are so poor they could not afford computers and telephones.

There is however a glimmer of hope in that in the townships and informal settlements Department of Education has initiated programmes to provide information technology in schools, with the help of partners that include the IBM Consortium. The Gauteng Online project, geared at providing Internet access to public schools by 2006, has provided several learning institutions with notebook computers from IBM.

Among the many schools that have received the computers are Aha Thuto in Orange Farm, Sizanani-Thusanang Combined of Sebokeng, Manzini in Vosloorus, Skeen of Alexandra and several more in Dawn Park.

Upon initial deliverance of the computers to township and informal settlement schools IBM South Africa's training manager Lawrence Lafferty said with the shortage of infrastructure in many public schools the mobile

IBM South Africa has taken even further strides in improving Internet access to poorer communities.

computer solution saves the schools a fortune that would help build a separate computer lab. "That also eliminates the idea that computing takes place at fixed places."

IBM South Africa's executive Excel Shikwane said introducing technology to education processes alters them over time, especially in the Internet based areas of sharing, teaching best practices, consolidating administrative activities and learner collaboration on research and projects. "To us the Gauteng Online initiative helps in transforming education processes through technology to ensure educators deliver what they long to achieve."

Gauteng Online's Thando Mbikwana said competitive IT companies can co-operate positively on community upliftment projects. "The programme challenges educational policies and its successes so far have been from political support and commitment of the companies," he said.

IBM South Africa has taken even further strides in improving Internet access to poorer communities. Recently (in September) it donated an Internet based kiosk to Johannesburg's MuseuMAfricA, the history and cultural history museum in Newtown. The kiosk includes a zoom facility that allows viewers to examine art works from various angles, in much closer and sharper detail than they could in the museum itself.

That provides free public access to a digital library of the world's biggest art collection in Russia's Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

The donation, part of IBM's US$2 million investment in special technology, allows quick transmission of high-resolution images across the Internet. The curator of MuseuMAfricA, Sandra de Wet said IBM's donation of the Hermitage kiosk provides a facility for cultural exchange. "Unlike in North American and European cities, Johannesburg has no ready-made museum-going audience. We also have to attract black city youths who have low or no literacy, which is difficult to do."

She adds that the kiosk however incorporates technological features that interest young people, like touch screens and the Internet, a superb way of luring them.

"IBM helps to nurture a museum- going audience, an invaluable contribution to the city's cultural life." IBM South Africa's corporate community relations manager, Alfred Mandewo said they use technology to instil positive changes in communities. "We focus on education, the most important means of making communities self-sufficient." IBM also installed onother Hermitage kiosk at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town last year and another at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Joubert Park.

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