The South African government’s decision to postpone the reopening of schools as the country buckles under the pressure of a second wave and more infectious variant of the Covid-19 virus can only be commended. There is no denying that this decision was a choice between the lesser of two evils – reopening schools earlier and risking a rise in infections and possible casualties, or reopening later and with less time to work through the annual school curriculum while calling on working parents, many of whom do not have adequate child care options, to keep their children home for longer.

Following this announcement, some independent schools have indicated that they will open earlier by moving their teaching and learning online. While the latter option gives learners a chance to start the school year before 15 February and avoid the risk of not completing this year’s curriculum, it also lessens learners’ exposure to environments where large numbers of persons, albeit while maintaining social distance and adhering to safety protocols, are present.

In South Africa, the majority of our school learners either have no or sporadic and poor quality access to wifi. These learners also attend schools that either have no or limited computers – many of which are not always fully functional – for learner use. Many learners also do not have access to smart phones that can handle more than the basic functions of an entry-level phone. The opposite is true for privileged learners, placing them at an advantage in terms of learning and knowledge acquisition even amidst school closures and for job opportunities in future.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time. The COVID-19 virus has only made it impossible to ignore that the majority of learners of school-going age in South Africa are facing an additional major threat – the continued widening of the gap between digitally skilled and unskilled individuals in a world that has been catapulted into the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) overnight. Recent research supports this.

In 2020, Vodafone ran an international public opinion survey in which they asked 6 000 youth between 18 and 24 years, living in 15 countries, to share “their views about the future world of work”. According to their research, 57% of youth believed they would struggle to find a well-paid, permanent job, 67% had not received sufficient career advice to help them prepare for a digital economy, and 38% felt that when they did receive advice, it focused mostly on non-digital jobs. Their conclusion? Urgent action was needed to help young people develop digital skills so that they could access learning and employment opportunities in future.

In February of the same year, Amnesty International concluded in their report titled, Broken and Unequal: The State of Education in South Africa, that the “South African education system, characterised by crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and relatively poor educational outcomes, is perpetuating inequality and as a result failing too many of its children, with the poor hardest hit.”

On top of the digital disadvantage that underprivileged learners in under-resourced schools face, many of these learners also leave school early due to various circumstances and many who do finish school either do not get into university or other higher education institutions without the digital skills to succeed or realise their full potential. Those who enter the job market immediately after dropping out of school or finishing matric, will enter a job market where there is an increased need for workers who are digital citizens and can easily navigate a digital, technology advanced world.

With digitisation and mechanisation giving rise to increased job insecurity and losses within South Africa, many of these school leavers will not find job. The need to equip young people with the necessary skill sets to meet the demands of the 4IR is therefore more urgent than ever, making Digital Citizenship central to all types of youth development.

Having worked with disadvantaged schools over the last nine years in areas such as Stellenbosch and Helderberg in the Western Cape, it is clear that many learners do not possess basic digital skills. With machines replacing jobs once held by unskilled or low skilled workers, unemployment amongst these workers will continue to rise, while skilled workers with soft skills such as self-confidence and emotional intelligence, interpersonal, communication, teamwork, problem-solving or critical thinking, and time management skills will more easily find employment.

It now falls upon us to empower the next generation of youth for the future by giving them access to technical tools such as tablets, computers and smartphones; free, good quality wifi; as well as improving their knowledge of coding, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and audio engineering, amongst others, to help them work and function effectively in an increasingly digital world. We have to turn young people in South Africa into digital citizens with the digital skills needed for the 4IR.

This can easily be done by utilising unused school computer rooms and community centres and turning them into digital technology hubs in which we can teach digital skills to learners, community members and teachers alike. Youth who finished school and are unemployed can be trained as digital hub assistants as part of a mentorship and industry-based 12-month paid internship which provides them with employment and a skill that they can use to find permanent employment afterwards. By doing this, we teach learners digital literacy and vital soft skills while providing unemployed youth from lower income communities with an opportunity to develop technical skills required in the ICT sector.

Considering the number of youth that are rapidly falling behind, the proposition may seem impossible, but the alternative is to condemn the majority of youth in this country to a future where unemployment and poverty will become the norm and leave many South Africa’s dependent on the state to keep them from starvation.

Dale Simons is the founder of MiDO Technologies, a company focused on impact-driven digital literacy solutions that prepare the youth and educators for a world where the mastery of digital skills will be essential to access education and find employment in future. His goal is to contribute to Africa’s development and economic growth by empowering the youth for the fourth industrial revolution.