15 November 2002

South Africa: Technology Skills Can Expand Horizons

Dikhatole, South Africa — "The employment that I was doing before never really touched my heart the way this computer stuff touched my heart. For me, coming here is really manna from heaven."

Israel Sebekedi, who wants to become a computer engineer, laughed a little self-consciously at what he had just said. He could see that it might sound a little, well, over the top. But he was speaking - as he said - from the heart, about the computer skills course he's been taking at Dikhatole Digital Village, an ICT (information communications and technology) skills learning centre with 90 Internet-enabled terminals, a short distance east of Johannesburg.

Carly Fiorino, CEO of Hewlett Packard, a major funder of the project, who had come half way around the globe and was seeing it for the first time, appeared both surprised and pleased to hear the intensity of Sebekedi's endorsement.

Dikhatole township, despite being so close to South Africa's largest city and commercial capital, is dirt poor.

"The majority of the students are coming from indigent families, families that are very, very poor," said local councillor Abdul Mogale, who knows better than most, that Dikhatole residents lack running water, power and other basic services. "They are unemployed and they come from a depressed community."

It was the bleak conditions in the area which led the non-profit group, Organisation for Rehabilitation and Training (ORT), to propose the Dikhatole project to the South African branches of Hewlett-Packard (HP), Microsoft and Macsteel as a way to give young and unemployed people computer, Internet and business skills that might give them a better chance in the job market

And the students, struggling in their first week to master the mouse, certainly believe that this course could offer a second chance, when other routes have failed.

Elsie heard about the course at a meeting and decided to apply. Having been unable to continue at school, she thinks that with computer skills she might be able to get a job at a bank.

"I did standard nine. But unfortunately I failed standard 10, so there is no chance I can go further. That's why I do courses; in 1999 I do a cashier course and last year I do security and this year I will do computer. I want to go further."

Councillor Mohammed Akoon, a member of the municipality's mayoral committee responsible for economic development, shares Elsie's view that there need to be ways up the ladder outside the formal education system.

"Look, in the old days, the majority of the population of this country were kept out of education," he said. "But they acquired skills! You got highly skilled people who worked in heavy industry, boilermakers with no formal qualification. With the democratic government that we have now, we've made it possible for those with the necessary skills but without the formal paper to say, listen, I'm a qualified specialist."

While sharing Akoon's goal of equipping local people and lifting them out of poverty, Debra Dunn, Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs at HP who visited Dikhatole with Carly Fiorino, said the company has broader reasons for getting involved.

"When you visit places like South Africa, or even the US, the disparities that exist economically are huge and unsustainable. We are a very global company We operate in 160 countries. For us to be successful, there has to be a stable context, and we don't believe that the current context is very stable. So we need to help smooth out these inequalities and get to a place that, frankly, is, a healthier, more stable context for our business."

But there's a second motive, which is more directly to do with HP's market share. "Our customers today," Dunn said, "are made up of maybe the top ten per cent of the world's population, and we have to fight with our competitors to get a bigger share of that ten per cent. But it would make a lot more sense for us to invent solutions and technologies that would address the needs of a much bigger percentage of the population, and we would grow and succeed in the process."

She readily acknowledged, however, that this kind of project is "only one piece of the puzzle."

"I don't think that it's sufficient for people to just go to a computer training class, but I certainly think it's an important step. By learning to navigate on the computer and to access the Internet, you get access to a world of information that can be empowering in many ways and that can be helpful for letting people uncover potential that is latent in them that they may not even be in touch with themselves. So -- only one piece, but I think an important piece."

Councillor Mogale knows that the public sector has not got the resources to address this need and is relying on the men and women in corporate boardrooms to get the message that Debra Dunn spells out.

"I'm happy that the companies have exercised a social responsibility and I think through that, we should be able to get support," he said. "Let me just give you an example; Myself and Akoon went to China two months ago, IT has become one of the most important factors of their economy. In fact there are a lot of website companies there. And I think that with this kind of training, we should achieve that. I know most people will look to government and say they want support. But in South Africa, where you have people who don't have housing or proper infrastructure, it may be a huge task. So I think the private sector should be able to come and help because it helps them as well. It reduces the level of crime. It produces a positive attitude. And I think we can do it."

So where are these students going next?

Israel Sebekedi hopes to go on with his computer studies. After graduating from Dikhatole, he plans to apply for bursaries from donors.

"I've been learning, so far, an introduction to PC and Microsoft Word," he said. "I'm able, now, to type my CV in a professional way, nicely. I'm able to surf the internet. I'm having an email address which, before, I didn't have. I can just email, and fax, since we are learning scanning in this center, so really these trainers are helpful.

Councillor Mogale is pleased that some of first students to graduate have won internships in local companies and as volunteers in the community, because he believes exposure is important if they are to make headway in such a competitive sector. He also makes the point, however, that it is in the community's interest to see these young people succeed.

"The skills that they acquire will help them get employment so that they can assist their families. That is very important because it helps us develop our city. When they are employed they will be able to pay for services, which helps us because we can plough that back into infrastructure and other essentials."

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