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The partially digital: Internet, citizenship, social inequalities, and digital citizenship in South Africa

Tokunbo Toks D Oyedemi, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The Internet has evolved as a major medium of information and communication; broadband connection especially enhances Internet's capacity as a virtual platform for social, economic, political and civil activities. The problem is there is a limited and skewed access to the Internet in South Africa. The slow growth of household Internet and fixed broadband is problematic for a country that aspires to be "an advanced information society in which information and ICT tools are key drivers of economic and societal development" (South African Broadband Policy 2010). This dissertation investigates the pattern of Internet penetration in South Africa. Largely, I explore the pattern of Internet penetration amongst university students; data were collected from 10 universities located in both rural and urban areas with other demographic qualities that are representative of the student population in South Africa. Following Mossberger, Tolbert & McNeal's (2008) use of the concept of digital citizenship, I rearticulate the concept as a citizenry with the fulfilled rights to regular and flexible access to the Internet—implicitly individual and household forms of access, the skills to use the Internet, and regular use of the Internet for participation in all spheres of society. I then develop a theoretical framework of digital citizenship by identifying five key elements, namely: citizenship rights, Internet access, Internet use, Internet/digital skills, and policy. These elements are used as measures to investigate the pattern of Internet penetration in South Africa. I conducted a survey amongst students, interviewed officials in government agencies in the communications sector, studied selected policy documents, and carried out digital skill experiments. From the findings, I argue that digital citizenship is largely nonexistent in South Africa, particularly amongst the university students. I claim that most of these students are partially digital . A partially digital person has limited access to the Internet, inadequate skills to apply this technology and as a result cannot efficiently use the Internet to participate effectively as a citizen in society. The study also reveals the skewed access to the Internet replicates the existing pattern of social inequalities in the country, often analyzed in terms of rural-urban inequalities, inequalities based on gender of household heads, family income, racial and population groups. I also claim that students from households that bear the brunt of social inequalities in South Africa are further deprived by the lack of access to the Internet, particularly household access, and the inability to effectively use the Internet. This deprivation means that their rights and abilities to participate in society as citizens using digital means are compromised. In conclusion, I offer recommendations towards achieving digital citizenship.

Subject Area

Communication|Political science|Public policy|South African Studies

Recommended Citation

Oyedemi, Tokunbo Toks D, "The partially digital: Internet, citizenship, social inequalities, and digital citizenship in South Africa" (2012). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3518402.