Written and published on 29 May 2020.
In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared access to the Internet as a basic human right. You think I am kidding, but I’m not. In a time of social distancing and self-isolation, technology has ensured the continuation and even the normalisation of work, communication and socialisation. I have never been more thankful for my uncapped, 20Mbps home fibre line, as I have been during the past nine weeks of the government-enforced lockdown.
But for millions of South Africans, who are unable to easily and continuously connect to the Internet, Covid-19 has meant economic difficulties, isolation and distress. The past nine weeks have shown us that digital access is essential to sustain livelihoods and equally important, to enable social connection. Internet access as a basic human right starts making more sense now, right?
One of the most affected groups of the Covid-19 shutdown is the student population. Universities across the country have had to shut down, leaving thousands of students unable to continue with the academic year. Feenix research shows that one of the biggest challenges with campus closures for students is the accessibility to online learning, second to that, is the loss of emotional support from friends and student networks.
The Digital Divide
Where possible, universities have pivoted to online and distance learning. University surveys indicate that between 10% - 30% of students at affluent universities do not have access to adequate computing resources. This percentage is far higher at historically disadvantaged universities, who are not in a financial position to provide these resources to their students.
Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande announced on Saturday a phased re-opening of universities as the country shifts to Level 3 lockdown restrictions. The number of returning students during Level 3 is still unknown as universities prepare adequate safeguarding measures and develop a response strategy in case any attending student tests positive.
We have learned from this global pandemic that our world can change drastically and with little notice. While I sincerely hope that all students can safely return to campus this academic year, I share in their fear of the unknown and the threat of unpreparedness. Even at Level 2, the government foresees only a maximum of 66% return of the student population.
If there is an option to return, students should not have to choose between feeling safe and taking part in their academic activities. No student should be robbed of the option to access remote learning because they can’t afford a device. Many universities and government initiatives are tackling the digital need by providing students with equipment. There are, however, limited resources and all students do not qualify for support.
#CapTheGap To Bridge The Digital Divide
Feenix wants to ensure that final year and postgraduate students who are not eligible for this support are equipped with a laptop, data and food to see them through the academic year. These students will be among the first to enter and build South Africa’s economy post-COVID-19.
A difficult thing to do but if these unprecedented times showed us anything, it showed our resilience, our creativity and our spirit for survival. This pandemic won’t stop us from supporting our students.
Since 2017, communities on the Feenix platform have raised over R40 million for students' academic costs. We remain committed to our mission of ensuring that access to education is not dependent on wealth, including digital wealth. It is clear that we must step up and adapt. We will do this as a matter of priority and we are reaching out to our communities to support us in doing so.
Today, we are launching the #CapTheGap Covid-19 Response Fund. This campaign has one fundamental aim - to limit the digital divide students are experiencing across South Africa and in effect enable students to continue with their academic year, safely. By supporting this campaign, and helping us raise R6,6 million, you will ensure the delivery of computers, data and food to more than a thousand South African students.
- Students are selected by working closely with Universities.
- Students eligible for this campaign include “missing middle” final year students and all postgraduates students.
- Household income checks are conducted on all students selected for the campaign.
- The distribution of laptops and data will happen through a partnership with Van Schaik Bookstore.
Feenix will purchase food vouchers from Shoprite for students to redeem. Each student will receive a R250 voucher for the next 5 months.
You can find a link to the #CapTheGap campaign here.
Join us to #CapTheGap
Collectively, we can be a counterforce to the effects of COVID-19. The support of a community, even a virtual one, has a surmountable effect on a student’s self-belief and drive to succeed.
Take the words of Kgabo, a 5th year medical student fundraising on the Feenix platform: “In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the uncertainties and anxieties it has brought upon all of us, you have managed to reach out and give me a beam of hope. Your donations mean so much to me and have surely made a huge difference and impact in my journey to becoming a great doctor. I totally admire and honour our current health care workers on the frontline in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. They are my inspiration and motivate me…”.
I am equally moved and inspired by the thousands of extraordinary South Africans that have taken to this challenging time with such vigour and purpose; feeding communities, keeping each other safe by making and distributing masks, and supporting local businesses. We can do the same for our students.
We have achieved great responses in record time. Adversity has created collaboration and solidarity. What a much-needed sight!
Stay healthy, stay hopeful, we are in this together.
Leana de Beer,
Chief Executive Officer | Feenix