Data costs under fire

The recent Competition Commission hearings showed, again, how access to data is mediated by class in South Africa.

An unnamed young boy from Atteridgeville, Pretoria, who used to get in trouble with his mother for always coming home late became the face of the data-starved poor in South Africa on day three of the recent Competition Commission’s market inquiry into data pricing in South Africa.

The commission heard that the reason for him coming home late was that there’s  a free, public Wi-Fi hotspot 3km from his house.

When asked why he stayed out so late and risked his mother’s wrath, he responded simply: “I live in a shack. When I am online, I no longer live in a shack.”

The young boy’s story was brought to the commission by Onica Makwakwa from the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) after she watched him tell his story on YouTube.

A4AI is an initiative of the World Wide Web Foundation, which was founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who is acknowledged as the inventor of the World Wide Web.

If the young boy had no access to Wi-Fi, his story would never have been witnessed by Makwakwa on YouTube, and would never have made its way to the inquiry in Pretoria.

“These are the opportunities that we are denying South Africans,” reiterated Makwakwa. “We need to move beyond the attitude that a half loaf is better than nothing.”

Makwakwa pointed out in her presentation that before the inquiry, the debate about data prices in South Africa has been ongoing for the last two to three years.


In 2016, the Twitter campaign #DataMustFall became a rallying call for South Africans fed up with exorbitant data prices.

Since then, pressure has mounted on South Africa’s mobile operators, with the latest development being the Competition Commission’s market inquiry.

After three days of testimonies, the differences between the mobile operators on the one hand, and politicians and NGOs on the other, appeared stark.

Mobile operators appeared to measure success in terms of coverage areas and revenue streams, while NGOs argued that this tells us very little about access to data as a democratic good and that what needs to be measured is the “meaningful” use of the internet by people to “transform their lives”.

Many participants at the hearings reinforced the idea that data should be seen as a human right, much like access to water and electricity.

On day three of the hearings, the ANC argued that because data is used for learning, to access services, and to apply for jobs and schools, its is imperative that all South Africans are online and that data is considered a basic right.

Right2Know protested the “outrageous” costs of data in the country during its presentation on day one, suggesting that South Africans should get a free basic amount of data, like water and electricity.

Many others suggested that so-called out-of-bundle data rates and small data packages, which offer scant value for money, are the two key elements of the current data pricing regime that affect the poor disproportionately.

In South Africa, high and middle-income subscribers who can afford multiyear contracts with large data packages get the best value, while low-income subscribers, who have no option but to use prepaid or “pay-as-you-go” plans, buy small data packages that are, in relative terms, exponentially much more expensive.

During her presentation, Makwakwa pointed to recent research that showed the poorest 20% of South Africans spend 19% of their monthly income for a 1GB of data, while the richest 20% of South Africans pay less than 1% of their monthly income to purchase the same amount of data. According to her, the UN’s target is that no one should be spending more than 2% of their monthly income on 1GB of data.

Wits academic Indra de Lanerolle argued that mobile operators were practicing an “extreme” form of price discrimination on the low-volume, poorer data consumers. This meant that low-income consumers were paying a “poverty premium”.

“The top end of the market may be competitive, but the bottom end of the market is not. At the low end of the market, there is no use of the internet as an information tool, almost all the use is on WhatsApp,” he argued.

According to De Lanerolle, some consumers only turn their WhatsApp on a few times a day and don’t stay connected permanently.

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