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This report focuses on the provision of free internet access to communities in public libraries in South Africa. It has been prepared in response to a United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) review of the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Plan of Action commitments, with the aim of gauging the extent to which South Africa has met those commitments ten years after the second WSIS summit in Tunis in 2005.

Section C7 of the World Summit on the Plan of Action states that “ICT [information and communication technology] applications can support sustainable development, in the fields of public administration, business, education and training, health, employment, environment, agriculture and science within the framework of national e-strategies”. 

Section C7 (17) on elearning references section C4, which states: “Everyone should have the necessary skills to benefit fully from the Information Society. Therefore capacity building and ICT literacy are essential. ICTs can contribute to achieving universal education worldwide, through delivery of education and training of teachers, and offering improved conditions for lifelong learning, encompassing people that are outside the formal education process, and improving professional skills. [our italics]” Amongst several points in the section, it highlights the need to “[d]esign programmes to train users to develop self-learning and self-development capacities.” 

In this regard, an assessment of the extent to which free internet access at public libraries is available, suggests the extent to which there are “improved conditions” that enable lifelong learning and self-development.

While this report focuses on internet access points in public libraries (i.e. excluding school libraries), it is important to point out that public libraries are only one venue where public internet access is offered to communities. Numerous other projects have, or have attempted to provide public access to the internet since the 2003 WSIS Plan of Action was agreed. These include government-led Thusong centres (originally multi-purpose community centres), The Digital Doorway project, the BB4all initiative, Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) telecentres, as well as numerous other localised and scaled public access initiatives (digital villages, community access points, internet access offered by NGOs, some public access at schools etc.).

Moreover, the proliferation of mobile phones in previously neglected communities has created an unprecedented level of access to technology in those communities, and at least the potential of accessing the internet through them.