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Computer literacy holds key to a brighter future

The IT centre is offering hundreds of students the rare opportunity to become computer literate swissinfo.ch

Surrounded by ramshackle tin huts and rudimentary brick houses, the South African township of Orange Farm seems an unlikely spot for an information technology centre.

This content was published on November 29, 2003 - 17:16

But it is here that hundreds of impoverished students are being given a head start in life, thanks to a Swiss-backed e-education initiative.

The sprawling township, which lies 55 kilometres south of Johannesburg, is home to over half a million people – most of whom are unemployed.

The children growing up here – and in similar settlements around the country – are faced daily with the harsh realities of violent crime, rape, HIV infection, illiteracy and poverty.

Many of their parents struggle to pay for food, much less school tuition and uniforms.

Brighter future

But the head of the IT centre at the Amsai primary school, Dada Deva, says the unprecedented initiative is expected to offer these kids something their parents never had – a chance to become computer literate and a shot at a brighter future.

“This is the only facility of its kind in a South African township to provide computer access and teaching to this degree,” Deva told swissinfo.

“So it’s really a watershed in terms of giving disadvantaged kids the chance to learn skills that the vast majority of black people in this country don’t have.”

The students, who range in age from five to 13, enthusiastically support their teacher’s point of view and nearly all believe that the skills they are learning now will prove essential later in life.

“If I grow up, I want to be a scientist and repair the ozone layer and I think computers will help me do this,” said 12-year-old Simon.

“I want to be a police man and I think computers will help me catch criminals,” said another student.

Outside world

The students have also established e-mail links with schoolchildren in Switzerland – an exchange that has sparked their curiosity and imaginations.

“We write about our families and the way we live and I’ve learned that we are different because of our cultures and our names,” said 11-year-old Anna.

“I’ve discovered that you can communicate with people who are very far away,” said another student. “And that Switzerland is a small country where there is not as much crime as we have here in South Africa.”

Swiss support

Inaugurated in August, the Amsai facility also offers evening software classes for adults and serves as an online resource centre for local people looking for work.

The complex, which houses around 60 donated computers, was funded and built by the Swiss South African Cooperation Initiative (SSACI) at the request of the local residents.

Based in Pretoria, the organisation works with Swiss businesses and the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development to boost training and education for disadvantaged youths across the country.

The head of the SSACI, Ken Duncan, is a firm believer that early childhood computer awareness and literacy form the building blocks for future employment.

“Orange Farm is typical of a society in transition… Most of the residents have come from rural areas and are now living in an urban area and they’re starting to engage in the modern, technology-driven, urban economy,” said Duncan.

“They’re also discovering that being computer literate, or at least understanding how computers work, is a very useful card in the employment market,” he added.

Tough challenge

According to Duncan, the South African Department of Education recently launched a major government-funded drive to ensure that all students graduate with at least some technical skills training.

But Deva points out that with around half of the population lacking access to computers and a national youth unemployment rate of 51 per cent, it will be up to the government, organisations and communities to work together to really make a difference.

“Given the chance, I really think we can overcome the sorts of limitations that are unfortunately, so endemic in this country,” Deva said.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Orange Farm, South Africa

Key facts

Of the 43.6 million people living in South Africa, only 18 per cent have access to a computer in their own home.
According to the World Bank, there are only 300,000 computers installed for educational use throughout the entire country.
Around half of the country’s population does not have access to computers at all and only ten per cent of people living in rural areas owns a fixed-line telephone.
The unemployment rate amongst 15 to 30-year-olds in South Africa is 51 per cent.

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In brief

Students in the South African township of Orange Farm, near Johannesburg, are being given a head-start in life thanks to a Swiss-backed e-education initiative.

The project, which is located at the Amsai primary school, is expected to give hundreds of impoverished school children the rare opportunity to become computer literate.

According to the Swiss South African Cooperation Initiative (SSACI), which funded and built the facility, computer skills and awareness are essential to finding employment in an economy brimming with job-seekers.

The SSACI was started in 2001 by the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development and a group of private Swiss companies doing business in South Africa and provides training and job opportunities for disadvantaged youths.

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