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SOUTH AFRICA: Biggest ICT Education Project Draws Flak

by Anthony StoppardInter Press Service
May 22nd, 2002

''Mkathimbani'' means cyberspace in the indigenous Nguni languages of Southern Africa.

Mkathimbani is a combination of the Nguni words ''Mbani'' and ''Mkhati''. Mbani means electronic and Mkhati refers to a sphere in space -- that is related to a sphere in time.

The effort to link the language of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to local languages is part of an attempt by the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) to boost interest in ICT among school pupils. Gauteng is a province of South Africa.

Programme Manager for GautengOnline, Thami Nxasana, says that putting ICT terms in local languages, ''will go a long way to tackle the fear of the unknown, which is the biggest hurdle to education''.

GautengOnline is an ambitious project to provide every school in the province with at least 25 networked computers over the next five years -- giving 1.5 million pupils access to e-mail and the internet. Teachers also will be trained in ICT and related subjects.

The province has already earmarked R500 million to kick-start what is the largest ICT project in Africa. ''Real learning, real time, real smart,'' is the slogan of the project. One U.S. dollar is equal to about 10.10 Rand.

However, many schools in the province do not have basic services -- like water and electricity -- and there has been some criticism that the GDE is getting ahead of itself by investing in technology, instead of basic infrastructure.

The Member of the Executive Council for Education in Gauteng, Ignatius Jacobs, points out that infrastructure provision for schools in the province has, in fact, been fast-tracked -- because the project cannot go ahead in schools without electricity and secure facilities for the computers.

A pilot project in 25 schools in Gauteng has been well received by pupils and teachers, says Jacobs. He points out that putting the technology and computer networks in place is not the biggest challenge of the project -- that is being supported with equipment and skills from major South African and international ICT companies. Rather it is developing a curriculum that will hold the interest of pupils and the training of teachers that is proving to be the real challenge.

There is also concern that as the project rolls out it will become more difficult to manage, secure and maintain the network of computers across the province. However, Jacobs believes the importance of the project to education -- and the economy -- in the province, makes it worth the risk.

For the province, GautengOnline is not only an education initiative, but also a big part of its economic development strategy. Gauteng is the economic heartland of South Africa and drives the growth in the rest of the country.

Although South Africa suffers from an unemployment rate of about 35 percent of the workforce -- depending on the measure used -- it is estimated that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 vacancies for skilled people in the economy.

South Africa's problem is not a shortage of jobs, but rather that the unemployed do not have the skills needed by key industries. By giving pupils access to the skills they need for the job market, the project hopes to reduce unemployment and kick-start economic growth in the province -- and the country.

South Africa is also battling to keep research and development skills and scientists -- who are vital to keeping South African companies competitive in the international market -- from leaving for bigger, wealthier economies.

According to the South African Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, spending on research and development in the country has dropped by 10 percent over the past four years.

The number of scientists in the country also has declined by 17 percent.

However, some trade unions are concerned that the South African government is investing too much in boosting the country's ICT skills, and not doing enough to secure jobs for the majority of the workforce, who do not have the skills necessary to cope in a modern, services-orientated economy.

However, government insists that if it does not solve the shortage of skills, the economy will not create any kind of jobs.

Another South African province, the Western Cape is also planning to provide pupils with e-mail and internet access and computers. It is estimated that one million pupils and 26,000 teachers, in the province, will be trained in ICT skills in the next few years.





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