Posted on February 28, 2012

The National Development Plan for South Africa's Vision for 2030 sees the 'road to transforming society and changing relations' building a social compact based on a sense of belonging, responsibility, accountability, mutual respect and trust. That all sounds very wonderful. Cultural institutions, we cry, can contribute by helping people to reflect on their shared past to build a better future together. But all these hopes and dreams will remain up in the clouds with the rainbow nation if cultural institutions do not engage in new ways with new audiences.

One of the ways that cultural institutions can expand their reach is through digital, online engagement. We probably spend too much time talking about the digital divide (which is a real and present danger of course) but not enough time looking at how cultural institutions will prepare for a digital future. Imaging this future now is important for two reasons. First, cultural institutions need to plan - they could easily be left behind in an offline desert when other forms of entertainment and consumption move online. Second, in this future, cultural institutions have a critical role to play in addressing young people, helping them to build skills and new kinds of community that resonate with what we bring from the past.

African internet use is growing dramatically and this will continue

In 2010, sub-Saharan Africa was still one of the most expensive regions in the world for internet access (fixed line broadband), according to the International Telecommunications Union. But costs are coming down and fibre-optic cables are increasing the region's bandwidth capacity. Advances in mobile technologies mean that many Africans will start accessing the internet using smart phones and tablets as they become cheaper.

There are two main things that characterise internet use in Africa at the moment. We are behind the rest of the world in terms of internet penetration (only 13.5% in 2011), but we are at the top of the pile in terms of growth in internet usage (nearly 3,000% growth between 2000 and 2011). One example of this is the massive growth experienced by services like Facebook in Africa (and South Africa is in the top few countries experiencing such growth).

This upward trend will continue because Africa is experiencing enormous economic growth and rapid urbanization, pushing a consumer boom. The main barrier to accessing the internet in the future will be access to electricity to charge these devices, according to the National Development Plan. It plans to have 100% broadband penetration in schools and other social institutions by 2020, with affordable access for individual citizens. If it happens, this will support education as well as development, and enable new forms of online social community-building.

Education and community building will be critical because the National Development Plan also points out that by 2021 the proportion of South Africa's population between the ages of 15 and 29 will peak. These young people are likely to be under-educated, and to account for a disproportionate number of the unemployed. Two thirds of young black South Africans are at present unemployed; they are unlikely ever to be employed if they fail to get a job by the age of 24, according to figures from the South African Presidency Report, Human Conditions Diagnostic (2010). This poses a great risk to their own welfare and happiness, and more broadly to social stability.

Preparing for a digital future: what can cultural institutions do?

Cultural institutions have traditionally positioned themselves to receive schoolchildren and the aged middle class in genteel circumstances, and even if they are thinking innovatively in other ways, they have been slow to take up the opportunities offered by the digital revolution. Perhaps if cultural institutions can start thinking of themselves as digital partners with the generation of South Africans just leaving school, both can ensure they are not left behind. This can be done in two ways. First, by fostering public debate and seeking new audiences among employed young people who are looking for local internet content and seeking their roots. Second, to engage specifically with unemployed youth as well as recent graduates through opportunities offered by digitization projects and the development of online communication tools. This can help to inspire and equip young people at the end of school with digital skills and interests that prepare them for jobs, but also acknowledge and draw on their histories and experiences.

My impression is that archives in South Africa are still being digitized in a piecemeal fashion, which hopefully will be more strongly coordinated in the future. Very few cultural institutions are on Facebook, twitter or offering online access to their collections; if they have a website it is not always regularly updated.

Facebook usage by South African cultural institutions is quite variable, for example, with some institutions clearly building strong online relationships, but most do not seem to be on Facebook at all. Of those who are, all should be congratulated for taking advantage of a free platform for engagement and marketing. The pages are of course at different stages of development -some are new or low-intervention sites with under 50 'likes' and little activity, such as the South African National Museum of Military History, and the Albany Museum. The South African Air Force Museum,and Iziko Museum have larger Facebook pages with 50-100 'likes' and more activity. The Cradle of Humankind facebook page also has lots of activity, mainly posted by their marketing department, and nearly 1,500 ‘likes'. Many institutions also use Facebook groups. The Spring School at Robben Island has a facebook group with about 40 members, catering to those who have been through the programme. The District Six Museum Group has 683 members and lots of activity. SAHRA also has a facebook group.

Clearly this is changing rapidly. Do let us know in the comments about your Facebook, twitter or website offerings, as well as any online or digitization projects you are busy with.

In the next few blogs we will look at some more examples of digital initiatives elsewhere in the world that can be used as ideas in developing our own projects.