Internet access in one of Africa’s richest countries is about more than fast connections.

Following a wave of student protests against high university fees, South Africans started a national conversation over the cost of mobile data. Aqua Images/Shutterstock

By Gugulethu Mhlungu | December 21, 2017

The first person to post a tweet with the hashtag #DataMustFall was Bulali Dazana, a stockbroker. Dazana tweeted the now famous hashtag in March 2015, a few weeks after a student at the University of Cape Town poured human excrement on a bronze statue of committed imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, a fixture on the campus since 1934.

The student’s actions were part of a protest wave known as #RhodesMustFall, sparked in part by slow-boiling frustrations over the university’s push to drop race as a factor when assessing whether a student is historically disadvantaged when it comes to university admission and funding. But it grew into a movement that saw black students, faculty, and staff take on the institution over everything from high fees that exclude black students to the fact that the university’s student body and academic staff remain majority white – almost 24 years after the fall of apartheid.

Dazana’s tweet came from the frustration of losing the comfort and privilege of access to fixed-line WiFi in his old East London apartment complex in the Eastern Cape. After he moved, he was forced to use mobile data on a monthly contract at his new home in the city’s Baysville suburb – which, while still affluent, was not as well connected. He was shocked to discover the data contract he’d signed up for did not cover his monthly needs, and he found himself having to buy extra data bundles at exorbitant costs.

Despite his middle-class status, Dazana is acutely aware that his problems with the costs of mobile data are minor compared to those of his less-privileged peers. “For the middle class, internet access is all about entertainment and social media, which is important, but not as important as, say, a poor graduate looking for a job [and] who really needs internet access,” he said in a telephone interview

Data as a political issue

The #DataMustFall hashtag didn’t gain much traction until late in 2015, as #RhodesMustFall spread to other South African universities and rebranded itself as #FeesMustFall. The statue of Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town in April 2015. Noting the successes of the student uprising against the high price of university fees, others began to use #DataMustFall to protest against the country’s high cost of mobile data. Organizations such as Right2Know (R2K), an NGO advocating for freedom of expression and equal access to information, began lobbying mobile network operators to make data more accessible to the country’s poor majority.

Roughly 54% of South Africans access the internet through mobile devices, according to Statistics South Africa. This figure falls to 38.3% for rural areas alone. In those areas, mobile devices are still the most common form of internet access, suggesting that the majority of the country’s poor, rural-dwelling citizens have little or no internet access.

Speaking from his office in Cape Town, Biko Mutsaurwa, R2K’s communication rights organiser, maintains “that the issue of high mobile data costs is a [human] rights issue in South Africa. In addition to the freedom of expression, the [South African] constitution also enshrines the right to communicate”.  

Mutsaurwa finds it concerning that people often conflate the two, collapsing the latter into the former. Section 16(1)(b) of the constitution dealing with freedom of expression states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­… freedom to receive or impart information or ideas.”

“In the digital age,” he said, “internet access is fundamental to enjoying the freedom to receive and impart information or ideas.”

Price of 1 GB of Prepaid Data in Major African Markets

Price of 1 GB of Prepaid Data in Major African Markets

Source: Research ICT Africa, 2017

In 2013, R2K submitted a list of demands to the country’s major mobile networks – Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and the state-owned Telkom – calling on them to give their subscribers a basic amount of airtime and data free each month. The networks rebuffed this demand saying it went against the principles of South Africa’s market economy.

The companies did, however, soften their opposition to a debate about data prices following a series of demonstrations staged by R2K in September 2017 outside the headquarters of the four major mobile network operators.

“In early 2018 we will be having a dialogue with mobile operators on the free basic allowance and SMSs,” Mutsaurwa said. He hopes more meaningful reductions to mobile data costs will emerge from this dialogue – more meaningful than the disastrous attempt by MTN to appropriate the #DataMustFall hashtag as a marketing gimmick.

That freedom of access and the right to receive or impart information or ideas is set out explicitly in the Bill of Rights makes South Africa unique. There is no other country where nearly the entire gamut of possible socio-economic rights is constitutionally protected.

Is affordable data a right?

R2K primarily lobbies mobile operators, while other NGOs such as Project Isizwe take a different approach. Project Isizwe advocates for free internet access within walking distance of citizens living in low-income communities. The organization believes the practical realization of the rights to communication and access to information are state obligations.

Dudu Mkhwanazi, Project Isizwe’s CEO, maintains that the state should carry the cost of mobile voice and data access for the poor by providing mass access to public and communal WiFi.

“We are not saying that the right to internet means the state must subsidize routers and WiFi for individual homes,” Mkhwanazi said, “but that the state should invest in making WiFi accessible within walking distance of each household, in the same way it has made water and libraries accessible within walking distance of most homes.”

In addition to the individual benefits, Mkhwanazi argues it is in the interests of a developing economy to invest in broadband.

According to World Bank figures, she says, for every 10% increase in broadband penetration in developing countries there is a 1.38 percentage point increase noted in GDP growth. “If the state invested in public broadband it would have a greater return,” she added.

Although focused on broadband rollout, Mkhwanazi and Project Isizwe are not shying away from engaging mobile operators. “We are always telling the operators that the bulk of their customer base is lower-income prepaid users and their pricing should reflect that,” she said.  

Regulators step in

The #DataMustFall campaign has also caught the attention of national regulators. The  Parliament and the Competition Commission have launched probes into mobile network operators and data prices, and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), which is responsible for the licensing and regulation of electronic communications and broadcasting services, has also stepped in more decisively.

Speaking on behalf of ICASA, spokesperson Paseka Maleka said by email that the organization would follow the mandated public consultation processes, including discussions with network providers, when it comes to the new regulations. However, Maleka would not comment on mobile data prices.

“ICASA is not in a position to comment on the level of data prices before the conclusion of reviews on data markets. However, numerous independent research studies (publicly available) seem to suggest that South African retail data prices are relatively high compared to other countries in Africa,” Maleka said.

South African police break up a student protest in Cape Town. Themba Hadebe/Associated Press.

He also noted, in the cautious tone of a regulator negotiating a tricky change, that the studies do not take into account the underlying cost of providing data services. This has been the primary contention of mobile network operators, which claim their prices are cost reflective.

ICASA’s proposals require mobile network operators to notify users when they have depleted their mobile data bundles, and offer them the option to either opt-in or out of out-of-bundle charges. Currently, when data bundles are depleted or expire, mobile network operators automatically deduct charges at out-of-bundle rates from a subscriber’s airtime balance, with no option to opt out. Notifications that a subscriber’s data bundle has been depleted or has expired also sometimes come well after their airtime has been wiped out.

Should ICASA have its way, the validity of a 1 GB bundle, for instance, could extend up to 90 days, and up to two years for a 20 GB bundle. Neither proposal, however, is likely to reduce the actual prices of data. A 1 GB prepaid data bundle in South Africa will still cost twice as much as in Nigeria and three times more than in Ghana, according to a report by Research ICT Africa. But longer expiry dates and giving subscribers the option to opt out of out-of-bundle charges would reduce the amount users spend on mobile data.

Prepaid customers bear the burden

Indra de Lanerolle, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, highlighted earlier this year that 75% of mobile network operator Vodacom’s voice and data income from prepaid SIM card customers came from ‘out-of-bundle’ rates. The majority of the country’s poor depend on prepaid SIM cards because they cannot afford to pay monthly contract fees.  

“The real simple fact is that poor people pay more [for mobile data], much more,” he added in a telephone interview. “If you are able to buy on contract or in really big quantities, it starts working out a lot cheaper. On prepaid you can pay up to 60 times more than what someone on contract or in-bundle is paying,” he says.

Wealthier people, de Lanerolle notes, don’t rely on mobile networks. The wealthy have fixed lines at home or work. “They only use mobile data when they are moving around, whereas when you are poor or you are in a rural area, there is no fixed line. There might be some public hotspots, but for the most part you rely on your phone,” he said.

De Lanerolle, #DataMustFall activists from R2K, and others accuse mobile network operators of effectively subsidizing the mobile voice and data access of the rich minority by exploiting the poor’s need to communicate.

Like so much in South Africa, the cost of mobile data reveals a fractured economic system that has failed to lift millions out of poverty despite decades of promises of equality. Data is increasingly seen as a necessity around the world, and South Africa is no different. The data struggle in South Africa is extreme in that the country’s poor are at the mercy of predatory companies exploiting their data needs for excessive profit, but other emerging markets could soon join the chorus. The fight to have affordable data included as a human right in South Africa could serve as a blueprint for data debates around the world.

Gugulethu Mhlungu is the host of Night Talk on Radio 702, and the former arts and culture editor at City Press. She tweets at @GugsM.

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