SOUTH AFRICA: The global village is slowly going digital

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Computers are increasingly ubiquitous in the developing world as software and internet companies create operating systems, computing programmes, and web-based portals in hundreds of indigenous languages.

Following the rapid growth of local-language technology in mobile phones and open-source programmes, many software and internet companies are scrambling to gain a foothold in these markets.

Microsoft already offers its flagship Windows and Office products in about 40 different languages, including Arabic and French. But the US software giant is also developing what it calls "interface packs". The free downloads are now available in 37 additional indigenous languages, including isiZulu (South Africa), Quechua (Andes region) and Inuktitut (rural Canada).

In Africa the digital divide remains vast, despite the growing numbers of computers in schools, businesses and homes; according to the International Telecommunication Union, only 5 percent of Africa's estimated 800 million people accessed the internet in 2007, and desktops and laptops still require a basic degree of computer literacy, even in indigenous languages.

Computing technology in local and marginalised languages is another tool with which to address humanitarian issues, such as helping farmers and boosting regional food security efforts. They also can be a boon to small business creation and economic development, as well as language preservation.

In KwaDukuza, on the northern coast of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province, rural farmers flood the local computer lab to use computers in Zulu, one of South Africa's 11 official languages. Visitors browse the internet using Google's Zulu search engine, in which Ngizizwa Nginehlanhla replaces the tab "I'm feeling lucky" on the home page.

"A lot of rural farmers are coming all the way into town to access these computers and the internet," said Alan Govender, manager of a communications centre in KwaDukuza. "Cash crops like sugar cane are very big here, and these farmers use computers to learn the ways and means of delivering these cash crops, even with drought."

Govender says the Zulu-language technology is drawing more rural and elderly people; since the centre installed the software in 2006, its membership base has climbed by 30 percent.

Economic empowerment

Throughout Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, micro-business is conducted in indigenous languages. Local-language technology tends to increase the productivity of these enterprises by allowing owners to use spreadsheets to track their inventory, or create invoices for clients.

It could also make health care and education systems more efficient. "I use the internet to search for job opportunities," said Brian Dlamini, a high school teacher looking for work as an accountant.

Sipho Mkhize is studying small-business management. Although he has used personal computers in English for years, he said he preferred to use a Zulu-language operating system and search engine.

"I know English and have studied at a dual-medium school [in both English and Zulu], but there are some things I will only know in Zulu," he said. "For example, I know immediately that imibhala yami means 'my documents' or the place where I put all my work, because I don't have to translate it in my head."

Advocates promoting local languages and cultures agree. "Technology using indigenous languages is important because then you are dealing with something you know, whereas in translation you lose a lot. Your mind is liberated to bring your own innovation and ideas," said Gaboile Tiro, deputy director of policy at the National Indigenous Knowledge Systems division of South Africa's Department of Science and Technology.

Language preservation and development

The Zulu-language options at KwaDukuza's resource centre have created a buzz in townships as well as rural areas. Some credit the technology companies for recognising their community, and creating a space for their language in the digital age. "For us, we see it as a great honour – because this is our mother tongue," said Thando Mzimela, a facilitator at the centre's computer lab.

Not everyone feels the same way. The Mapuche, an indigenous community in Chile, made headlines in 2006 when it accused Microsoft of intellectual piracy for developing Windows in their language, Mapudungún. Representatives of an estimated 400,000 Mapuche reportedly said the government of Chile and the software giant went ahead with the technology without consulting them adequately.

Experts say that is true of other linguistic minorities, who fear their language or knowledge will be appropriated by multinational corporations.

"There's a kind of negative response by those who feel either not consulted or not protected in the sense of their social and cultural capital, largely because of the world regime around intellectual property rights," said Prof Peter Austin, director of the Endangered Language Academic Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

This sentiment is not shared by the South Africans using the computer lab in KwaDukuza, where many say the use of Zulu has enhanced the language by creating new technical and scientific terms.

"This is about developing the language," said Dee Gumede, a high school teacher who uses a computer to draw up schedules and lesson plans. "We are seeing that we are also being accepted as far as computers are concerned. It's not for English people only."