Gap matters in the local village: A case study on the "hut-wired" situation in QwaQwa, South Africa

W J Petzer, Bloemfontein, South Africa (31 August 2001)


Table of Contents

bullet.gif (526 bytes) Introduction
bullet.gif (526 bytes) A digital divide ?
The current situation in South Africa
bullet.gif (526 bytes) A poverty divide
bullet.gif (526 bytes) The situation in QwaQwa
Poverty in QwaQwa
The culture
ICT situation in QwaQwa
Land Development Objectives
bullet.gif (526 bytes) Poverty rich, information poor
bullet.gif (526 bytes) The future
bullet.gif (526 bytes) Conclusion
bullet.gif (526 bytes) References




basotho.jpg (52145 bytes)
Photo 1: Worldwide villagers in front of their "unwired" hut.

A visit to South Africa is a visit to the world in one country - it offers its visitor an interactive diversity of places, spaces and faces. For the South African planner this compressed world image rolls out a complex social, political and economic landscape in which differences must be accommodated and diversity respected and protected.

The existence of dual standards and incongruence in all spheres of social life and its expression in physical space means that settlement-making implies emergence in a world of contrasts: urban-rural, informed-uninformed, haves-have-nots, here-there, mobility-stagnancy, globalisation-alienation, and rich-poor. This is an even more complex matter in South Africa with its highly heterogeneous composition of cultures where inconsistencies tend to be inconsistently inconsistent, extremities extremely extreme and where the world has only shrunk for some.

This paper aims to show how poverty excludes and denies. It touches on the possible impacts of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on current information, cultural identity and spatial dispersion; and then reflects on planning in a world of new technology and an abundance of information. The paper introduces a case study of the situation in QwaQwa in the Free State Province where a unique people and their culture find themselves in need of upliftment, or so at least everyone seems to believe …

A digital divide ?

Take a people with strong social ties and a unique culture, add poverty and subtract information technology (IT) and IT skills. What divides them now from the rest of the people: a culture, a poverty divide, a digital divide or all three ?

Now add the infrastructure for communication and technology and you have one of the world's solutions to bridging the digital divide and one of the African strategies for poverty reduction. Is this all that is required to obtain the respective goals ?

What will become of culture ? For instance: will more information or new information change a culture ? Who gets to say that cultural values are wrong or in need of improvement or change ? And who are they to judge ? And then we have a poverty divide. Is it borne of the same reasons ? Are they related ? How is poverty measured ? By whose standards ? These are some of the difficult ethical and philosophical questions underlying development.

Planning in essence is perceived as actions aimed at enabling development. According to the UN declaration on the Right to Development, development is "a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting there from". This is a broad statement that seemingly presupposes a homogeneous socio-economical and cultural background in which a generalised approach is acceptable.

As a recent extension of development, sustainable development means meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs (UN). The term "sustainable development" is a hyperbole, or at least it should be dismissed as such, as development should not be undertaken if it could not be sustained - the one implies the other. This serves as a basic principle for business, the difference being that the more generalised term "development" refers to all aspects of life (social, cultural, human, economical, political) and points not only to financial aspects that form the bottom line when considering a business venture.

The fact is that sustainable development is still largely an ideal in South Africa and not yet a reality as poverty still distance and marginalise people. The digital divide only serves to deepen this phenomenon.

It seems that wealth is a prerequisite for digital inclusion and membership of the Information Society. In reverse, the hypothesis thus is that a relationship exists between poverty and a lack of information.


The main reason for this supposed information famine is access to the technology, but for Castells (1998) the real digital divide commences once you are connected. This is due to the multidimensionality of access, as it also relates to technological, financial, ethical, legal, political, institutional, social, cultural, and content and interface constraints. There is also the issue of appropriate access for different users and user groups with differing needs.

The current situation in South Africa

In Africa there are approximately 3.11 million people with web access of which two thirds are located in South Africa (roughly 1.82 million people). If we take the current population of South Africa as 41 million, this implies that 1:22 people in South Africa has access to the Internet. Compare this to the ratio of 1:250 for Africa, 1:35 for the world and 1:3 (daily users) for North America (Walton, 2000).

earth_lights.jpg (32253 bytes)
Photo 1: A composite satellite image of the world at night in which the distribution of electricity is evident - note the darkness of the African continent (source:

A poverty divide

There are two predominant definitions of poverty: a subsistence definition and one based on an analysis of relative deprivation (Webster, 1990, p. 18). The former is based on an estimate of income allowance required for purchasing food, basic clothing, fuel (for heating and cooking) and rent. The estimate produced is the income below which households can be regarded as being in poverty. The definition of "needs" is broadly defined along the lines of what is socially expected and points towards a minimum where households start falling short financially. Poverty is thus the degree to which people do not enjoy the basic standards that have come to be the norm in society.

In comparison with these standards, poor people are thus deprived in terms of the societal definition of poverty. Relative deprivation is explained in terms of the consumption pattern according to the "norm", but also according to the level of participation in customs, leisure pursuits, and the political culture of everyday life. Thus deprivation has to be measured both materially and socially (Webster, 1990, p. 20).

Deprivation rapidly worsens after the initial onset of poverty and creates a vicious deprivation trap in which material lack, low self-esteem, powerlessness, insecurity, isolation, poverty, physical weakness and vulnerability feed back into each other and is deepened in each twist of the trap.

Poverty can thus be measured using either a subsistence (e.g. $ 1 per day) or a relative deprivation approach (e.g. human development index, household infrastructure index, household circumstances index). Measurements using the latter approach tend to include more people.

If one employs the subsistence approach using income or expenditure as method of measurement, approximately half of South Africa's population can be categorised as being poor, and 72 % of the poor live in rural areas of the country (Stavrou et al, 2000).

Four main dimensions of poverty can be identified and according to the World Bank (Poverty Reduction Strategies: Sourcebook, 2000) relate to relative deprivation in terms of income, security (risk rich), education and health.

The situation in QwaQwa


Qwa-Qwa, a former homeland area for the Basotho, is situated within the scenic Eastern Free State, just north of the Republic of Lesotho. The magisterial area is approximately 476 kmē in extent, of which nearly 50 % is inhabitable and the rest consists of mountains.

Qwa-Qwa consists of an urban settlement (Phuthaditjhaba), approximately 63 kmē in extent, which has a population of approximately 70000 people, and a peri-urban / rural community (Qwa-Qwa), of approximately 250000 people that have settled in a number of villages along the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountain. Some of these villages are isolated from the rest due to natural formations of the mountain range and many of them are only connected through a rudimentary access road.

Most of the rural villages lack access to basic infrastructure and as such are largely dependant on the natural resource base through small-scale subsistence farming.  Although Qwa-Qwa is classified as a rural area according to its level of infrastructure and access to basic services, the population density in some of these settlements are comparable to those of urban areas (Spatial Solutions, 2000, p.20).

Poverty in QwaQwa

Qwa-Qwa represents 0,37% of the total area of the Free State Province, but houses almost 10% of the Free State population. Qwa-Qwa contributed 3% of the GGP for the Free State in 1994. It has the lowest average income and the highest poverty gap, vide. 14,4% (Spatial Solutions, 2000, p. 22).

The culture

The Sesotho speaking Basotho forms the largest portion of the population. Although many have become migrant-workers in South Africa, their attachment to their local village and traditional culture is still strong. Their unique culture is most evident in the rural areas where each village still has a chief, or headman, who will fall under the chief for the area. The family is still the dominant unit, and respect for the elder generation important. Basotho culture is centred around village life, and most traditions and festivals relate to local village life and the seasons of the year. Customs, rites and superstitions explain and flavour the lives and ceremonies of the people. As in all cultures, the milestones of birth, puberty, marriage and death are associated with ceremonies. Cattle, both as sacrifices and as symbols of status, play an important role in village culture, as does the cultivation of crops.

Music and dance play their part in traditional culture, both in ceremonial occasions and in everyday life.

Much of traditional Basotho culture is associated with avoiding misfortune, and reflects the grim realities of life in a marginal agricultural region.

house.jpg (44238 bytes)
Photo 2: A traditionally basic Basotho house.

ICT situation in QwaQwa

The basic requirements of access to the information superhighway are:

· Income;
· Electricity;
· Telephone lines;
· Hardware; and
· Education (literacy and digital literacy).

As expected, the reality in QwaQwa is such that it definitely hampers ICT deployment and meaningful application:




90% of the population has an income of less than $ 1 per day


62% of the formalised erven have no electricity


20 % of the population has telephones in their homes (almost all of it in Phuthaditjhaba)


No education: 26%; 1-4 years of school: 12%; 5-8 years of school: 21%; 9-10 years of school: 24%; 11-12 years of school: 12%; Post school education: 1%


 Land Development Objectives (LDOs)

The process of formulating LDOs is a strategic planning process that is undertaken by a local government body (the former QwaQwa Transitional Rural Council in this case) and the Integrated Development Approach (IDP) is the holistic and co-ordinated bringing-together of the different development objectives for a larger region.

It depends heavily on community participation and aims to focus limited resources on critical and essential priorities in the specific geographical area of study.

The objectives identified as priorities in this study were as follows (Spatial Solutions, 2000, p. xi):

1. Income generation and the creation of employment opportunities;
2. Developing civil infrastructure and transportation;
3. Providing housing and security of tenure;
4. Promoting a healthy community;
5. Increasing the levels of education and adult literacy;
6. Providing social infrastructure;
7. Enhancing safety and security;
8. Conserving the environment;
9. Democratising Local Governance.

From their list of priorities it is clear that all the dimensions of poverty mentioned earlier are present at various levels of urgency: income, security, education and health. ICT is not a major priority for the people. The question is: should IT be forcibly be made a priority to comply with national initiatives ?

As the use of information and telecommunication infrastructure is quickly becoming the norm throughout the world and in South Africa, it is believed that people without it are relatively deprived and therefore information and communication poor.

QwaQwa therefore finds itself on the wrong side of the information gap. The reason for this situation can be ascribed to a lack of access to ICTs. And the poverty gap serves as an additional measure to further deny access.

Poverty rich, information poor

The hypothesis is thus confirmed: there is a relationship between poverty (a lack of income) and a lack of information. This is explained in the fact that a disposable income is required for the procurement of both information and telecommunication technologies (ICTs) - the prerequisites for becoming a "wired global villager".

Income furthermore relates to the lack of access to information in the following ways:

1. Telecommunication technology (community level determinant):
· An adequate population is required so that costs can be shared; and / or
· A wealthy population who are all willing to contribute financially.
The poor without the ability to pay for the basic tariff and service charge will be the last to receive it.

2. Information technology (individual or community level determinant):
A computer and a modem are required and the cost will vary according to the intended use (the "worldwide wait" demands a quick computer, and speed is expensive).

Once ICTs are procured, ensuring the sustainable use thereof again requires of its user to have a disposable income to pay the service fees and usage tariffs.

The hypothesis can now be extended, as besides income, the education dimension of poverty is also important for the sustainable use of ICTs.

Therefore, providing access to ICTs through the provision of the required infrastructure in an area where the dimension of poverty stretches across multiple sectors in society could be seen as putting the cart before the horses.

The future

There are two possible scenarios of the future situation in QwaQwa:

· The likely scenario:
All indications are that the government aims at providing access to ICTs in marginalised areas. The result will be that the technology will be in place and everyone will potentially have access if they can afford it. This approach to the problem constitutes an over-elaboration.

· The ideal scenario:
It should be realised that the potential application of ICTs in QwaQwa is still low. In this scenario, the mode of intervention is carefully planned in a manner that will attack poverty where it has the greatest impact.

The ideal scenario will best be met through an approach based on selective exposure and deployment targeting the following:

· The business sector
The Internet has great potential by application as a business tool through marketing and establishing external linkages. A possible spin-off is the creation of employment opportunities.

· Other sectors with growth potential (cultural and eco-tourism, (agro-)industries, small-scale farming)
Potential application relates to promoting the area, as well as on-line booking in tourism and the establishment of buyers co-operations and identifying remote markets for agro-industries and small-scale farming.
An important focus must be placed on establishing indigenous content through the production of local content and information, subject-based gateways, electronic databases, digitalisation of documents and artefacts and a orientation towards the indigenous language thereby reinforcing and strengthening the culture.

· Schools
Targeting the youth will allow sustainable use and warrant further extension of ICTs.
The capacity for telematic education (distance learning) will impact on current knowledge and will allow the extension of available methods.
Great emphasis should be placed on science, mathematics and general business skills.

· Public places
The establishment of telecentres in accessible local places, such as libraries and other community facilities will bring down costs as the technology is shared between more people and will enhance access and exposure thereto. It might assist in reducing powerlessness, vulnerability and isolation and the possible identification of new livelihoods.
It is also interesting to note that, according to the Nielsen/ Netrating Second Quarter Global Internet Trends Report, in Africa 33% of people access the internet outside their own houses.
While the correction of information asymmetries will increase equality, the internet will inject fresh life into public places where access to the internet is provided.

· Local Government
The idea of an e-government is that it will allow greater transparency and participation in government matters as well as the faster dissemination of information, e.g. information concerning HIV/AIDS. The objective is to capacitate and to reduce feelings of powerlessness and isolation.

The above applications could contribute to attaining some of the priorities of the people of QwaQwa and assist in attaining human orientated development through equity, security and empowerment. The main point being however that ICTs are not the final answer to poverty.


The aim of this paper in the first place was to show that South Africa has something of value to offer to the world in the form of its variety of unique cultures. Secondly, to indicate that a relationship exists between poverty and information: the ability to pay being the initial stumbling block and factors of the human operator (interpretation and production of literate media) being the next.

The fact is that although the shrinkage of space can be attained through ICTs, it is only information in the form of 1's and 0's that benefit from it. In matters more physical, distance remains a factor: points of origin (production of goods) and destinations (end consumers) are fixed and must be transported by networks other than ICTs (although ICTs can be applied in certain aspects thereof, e.g. logistics). Physical, functional spaces are still required for human interaction, living, sport and recreation.

The IT sector is full of conundrums - it creates new jobs, but discards other labour, and ones moreover that utilise skills in oversupply in South Africa: an unskilled and poorly educated workforce. The IT industry is therefore neither necessarily nor inevitably "good" for development, broadly defined, but South Africa can however not isolate itself from it. The answer of course is to limit the negative impacts and this means spreading the benefits as far as possible to the marginalised in society - the rural poor - the QwaQwa's.

Much will however have to be done if the ICT sector is not to remain an exclusive terrain for the urban educated elites, widening inequalities within South Africa, and indeed the world economy as a whole. Yet, it is in the information sector that a considerable part of the future expectedly exists.


Direct references

Aust, D & Jensen, M. Spring 2001. Carnegie Reporter. (accessed June 2001)
Chris van Rensburg. 1997. Free State - The Winning Province. First Edition. Johannesburg: Chris van Rensburg Publications (Pty) Ltd
Fitzgerald, P. et al. 1997. Managing sustainable development in South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
May, J. 2000. Poverty and Inequality in South Africa Cape Town: David Phillips Publishers.
Moving South Africa towards the Information Society, 28 April 2000, Financial Mail. South Africa.
Spatial Solutions Incorporated Town and Regional Planners and Environmental Consultants (available, 2000. Land Development Objectives (LDOs): 2000 - 2005 for Qwa-Qwa Transitional Rural Council. Bloemfontein.
Stavrou, A., May, J., Benjamin, P., 20 June 2000. E-commerce and Poverty Alleviation in South Africa: An Input Paper to the Government Green Paper. (accessed June 2001)
Tourism Department, Eastern Free State District Council. This is the Eastern Free State. 1999. Bethlehem.
Walton, M. 2000. South African Online: 'Digital Divide' and the Network Society. (accessed June 2001)
Webster, A. 1990. Introduction to the Sociology of Development, Second Edition, MacMillan Press Ltd
World Bank. 2000. Poverty Reduction Strategy Sourcebook.
Zongo, G. April 2001. Information and Communication Technologies for Development in Africa: Trends and Overviews. IDRC / Acacia Communities and Information Society in Africa

General references

Africa in the Global Information Society. Department Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, South African Government (accessed: June 2001)
African Connection. (accessed: June 2001)
African Information Society Initiative (AISI). (accessed: June 2001)
African Internet Connectivity. (accessed: June 2001)CNN, (accessed June 2001)
Castells, M. 1998a. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Volume 2. The Power of Identity. Oxford, Blackwell.
Castells, M. 1998b "Possibilities for development in the Information Age: Information technology, globalisation, and social development." Paper prepared for United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. Available
Castells, M. 2000. Materials for an exploratory theory of the network. British Journal of Sociology. 51 (1): 5-25.
Economic Commission for Africa, (accessed June 2001)
Human Sciences Research Council. (accessed: June 2001)
International Development Research Centre. (accessed: June 2001)
Jensen, Mike. 1999. 'African Internet Status' available (accessed 11/05/2000)
Nua Internet Surveys. 2000. 'How Many Online', (accessed June 2000)
PEOPLink. (accessed: June 2001)
Poverty and Inequality in South Africa: Report prepared for the Office of the Executive Deputy President and the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Poverty and Inequality. 13 May 1998. (accessed: June 2001)
SAT-3/WASC/SAFE, (accessed June 2001)
The Information for Development Programme (infoDEV). (accessed: June 2001)
The South African Institute for Distance Education, (accessed June 2001)
World Bank, (accessed June 2001)
World Economic Forum, (accessed June 2001)