State of the internet in South Africa versus Africa and the World (May 2017)

Published May 2017

In this article, when I say “Internet” as in my title “State of the Internet” I am referring to the overall access of digital information via apps, web browsers, social media and those clever devices that use the Internet, such as phones and smart cars. So this article is written using a generalised understanding and colloquialism. Likewise, with a lot of the information that I have researched there are conflicting reports. So I have done some averaging. With my disclaimers done, onwards:

Everyone knows the Internet is growing, but by how much? How important is the Internet in South Africa, Africa and the world?

It is fact that if the Internet were not here the human race would digress. The Internet, in many ways, sets the pace for our own progressive and modern ways; therefore, the Internet must be expanding its possibilities at a faster pace than our own population.

The Internet is not the same in every country. The main conclusion and argument I have made for myself writing this article is that there appears to be a pattern in which more successful countries have greater access to free or well-priced Internet.

I am left asking if your country would do better if it had more Internet access. Look at this comparison of some of the countries with the fastest Internet.

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Now look at this list of countries with access. There is a difference between a country’s speed of Internet and access.

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

World overview for access:

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Now, compare these with the following GDP overview, 2016:

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Is it possible that those countries with the fastest Internet and most access to Internet have a better GDP?

Japan has 90% access, one of the fastest connections and has the 4th largest GDP in the world.

The United States, greatest GDP, with 74% Internet access.

South Korea has the fastest Internet in the world, 11th position for GDP and 89% access.

There is a remarkable connection and pattern. Of course, all of it has to be taken in context and, depending on how you scale and judge, one can argue many points. For example, South Korea has the highest level of the fastest Internet. Does that make them the best? Would you want a country that has a few people with Ferrari cars or a country in which every person has a VW car?

I would say it is best that everyone has a car. So I argue access is more important than speed. Also, access to faster Internet in South Africa depends on your budget. We have fast Internet in South Africa but most people cannot afford it.

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Summary so far:

Everyone’s GDP would drop if the Internet went down.

Those countries with greater Internet, in one way or another appear to be doing better.

Let’s continue:

If the state of the Internet in any one country was used to measure a country’s rankings worldwide, where would South Africa be?

The Internet’s ability to send information worldwide, which is actually done in packets of data, is getting so fast that it is just about fast enough to stream enough information for standard definition TV-quality video. Unfortunately, South Africa’s average connection speed is well below the average. Embarrassingly, we rank at about 90th on the scale. Our country has an average connection speed below 1Mbps from our fixed lines. Mobile Internet is less than this, sometimes almost half. At one point our Internet speeds were decreasing. This might cause you to worry, but I don’t think you need to. The UK is also slipping down the charts in terms of Internet speed, being only three times faster than South Africa’s Internet.

But as I said, speed is not the only way to rank our status.

52% of South Africans have access to the Internet. That is around twenty-seven million people. These twenty-seven million people only make up about 0.8% of the Internet’s users worldwide.

Here is a shocking fact: our small 0.8 % still makes up the majority percentage of Internet usage on the entire continent of Africa. Over 50% of Internet access in Africa is in South Africa! That means Africa as a continent is in a really poor state. Is this supportive of our continent’s GDP contribution? Africa is listed as 5th in continental contributions of worldwide GDP. Oceania and Antarctica are below us, and they have so few people compared to elsewhere. Asia, Europe and North America are top three, and they have the countries with the greatest access, fastest connections and most competitive if not free Internet options.

Does this mean African countries are bad? Many people will argue Africa is one of the poorest continents. Some argue it is where the most growth will happen over the next few decades, but that might be obvious, because if you are on the ground level you can only really go up.

Ten years ago only 4 million people had access to the Internet in South Africa. Compared to now, access has boomed! But has it really compared to worldwide growth?

Could our access be higher if the cost of data in South Africa were not so costly?

The majority of Internet users in South Africa are grouped in terms of income, earning between 30 000 and 70 000 ZAR/month – taking a 27% bite of the Internet’s use, followed closely by the 16 000 – 30 000 ZAR/month income group taking 24% of our Internet.

Of all these users, I have to assume that we are making crossroads into our e-commerce market as South Africa’s online shopping moves between 1 and 2% of the total worldwide online shopper economy. This means that our, let’s call it e-commerce GDP, has doubled.

Did you know, all costs considered, South Africa is still around the 20th cheapest country to live in worldwide? Then why is it that we have some of the most expensive data tariffs?

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

12% of our Internet usage is on Facebook, so we are very social.

Most users are under 25 and the majority of users are male.

There is a 58% active user-base for Internet shopping in SA, which is 30% behind South Korea, a leader in the field.

The most popular websites in South Africa are news24, IOL and DSTV.

In South Africa, we have around 7 million or more IP addresses. There are around 4.1 billion IP addresses in the world. An IP address is a unique string of numbers separated by periods that identifies each computer using the Internet Protocol to communicate over a network. So basically it’s a “connection” on the Internet. A PC connected to the Internet will have 1 IP address.

Do cell phones have IP addresses? Is this important? Of course, most people access the Internet using their phones. To answer my own question, yes, cell phones have IP numbers.

Not to complicate things, but every device on the Internet has two IPs; a public and a private one. But let’s not complicate things. My point here is that most people in South Africa and Africa use their cell phones for access to the Internet.

There are around 80 million active sim cards in South Africa. That’s almost double our entire population.

Cost is the main issue here.

Over 50% of our Internet users are using phones to use their data/contracts and averages 1gig of data per month.

Our per gig data packages compared to data worldwide are some of the highest! I really enjoyed the #DataMustFall movement. Using information for the international pricing comparison from BRICS-member countries, South Africa is the second most costly.

The sad thing is that most data is used for social activities. WhatsApp used the most data followed by Facebook. This means that we’re not even using the Internet to make money. We’re just spending it.

That is simply an unfortunate fact in South Africa. Worldwide issues with the Internet at the moment are, without a doubt, these two items.


What a lot of people fail to understand is that the state of the Internet impacts the entire world. Factors like data usage, safety and breaches, cybercrime, trust, control with governments, policy reform, ability to trade, communication and socialisation, you name it, it impacts the world. Internet security is a major problem because it reduces the user’s trust for online services.

There is an absolute love-hate relationship shared for the Internet. That is for the individual. Corporates are operating at another level. There is a common saying with regards to Internet safety, “There are two types of companies, those who have been hacked and those who don’t know they have been hacked.”

A lot of focus needs to shift onto prevention. Training people to be aware of risk and using technology to support.

Some interesting charts taken from the Internet:

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Quick observation:

Data on individual stats do not appear to feature high, but this does not mean it is not happening. I just think a company is more likely to report and record cybercrime.

In South Africa, most people don’t have the first idea of how to report a crime of this nature. This is a major problem.

What does cybercrime cost individuals? I personally know of several people, and the losses always rank in the thousands.

In 2015 the cost of data breaches for corporates worldwide was at 500 billion USD, and set to be around 2.1 Trillian by 2019.

That is nearly 2.5 % of the entire World’s GDP!

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Two interesting case studies:

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

My own personal case study involved my friend’s father. He responded to a fake ABSA spam mail and was redirected to a site. He entered his account information and gave access directly to the criminal who then emptied his account. His father, not knowing what to do, went to Absa because the mail had an ABSA logo on it. He was turned away because ABSA had no connection at all.

He lost 3 months savings.

We need to be educated on the risks, and no one is doing that. Most people in South Africa and Africa and who make up the majority of my followers on my Facebook account and personal website have no idea of the risks. We are so far behind that we are still trying to build our digital homes, never mind trying to secure it from break-ins.

In South Africa we are sandwiched in.

We are trying to develop a digital landscape and at the same time protect it.

It will only help us increase our development speed if we learn the basics of Internet risk and training staff to identify probable forms of attack. We need to keep our software up to date, so training and software are our first two weapons that we need to arm ourselves with. It is nice to know that South Africa participates in regional efforts to combat cybercrime. The East African Community (consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) and the South African Development Community (consisting of Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) have both enacted plans to standardize cybercrime laws throughout their regions. Good teamwork.

Onto my next issue:


Unfortunately, access is a twofold challenge.

Affordable data:

As already explained, the cost of data in South Africa is simply too expensive so we end up cutting back on its usage, and I truly believe this effects our economy negatively. Our businesses run at greater costs, which mean our prices to clients are higher, therefore, in general, we are a more costly option to trade with, locally and internationally.

What to do? This is a hard question to answer.

We have a fixed line operator with a monopoly, and if I can take this opportunity to announce that as of May 2017 it is a provider not being used by company after a massive over-billing of 30 000 ZAR, and a long decision to invite my clients to use data calls, WhatsApp and voice-notes to communicate with our offices.

Back to my point, when the fixed line option for faster Internet is controlled by one company, which happen to be a public, state-owned corporation (39% shares) there is no competition for better pricing.

This means that we move away to mobile operations, the largest one in terms of clients is Vodacom whom pays around 9 million in collective taxes per year. This is interesting because that is a huge chunk of funds that go to our government. Guess what, the company is owned (13.9%) by our state.

So, fixed line and largest cell company are linked to the state.

It stands to reason, a lot of our communication and, therefore, data is profitable for our state coffers…but are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Would our country, its people and its businesses do better if data was less? Surely access would increase, and we would fall into the category of countries that stand a better chance?

Would our state coffers run dry if we stopped using Vodacom and Telkom?

Is corruption at play here?

Another interesting fact is that our government owns 74% of Broadband Infraco. Infraco is another state-owned entity running at a loss but which hold a monopoly of services in its fields.

Second part of this section:

Government or legislation, limiting or controlling access:

There is a scary new censorship law, dubbed to be Africa’s worst censorship law. The act allows the Film and Publication Board (FPB) unrestricted powers over online content.

The bill was proposed to fight undesirable content, which includes racism, child pornography and bullying. This all sounds good and well, but who decides what undesirable content is? FPB’s proposed Online Regulation Policy takes aim at all online content, including YouTube videos, online games and “certain publications”. There is a window and opportunity for abuse here. Who gets to control the FPB board to ensure it is not used for a political agenda? For example, perhaps someone decides to post a presidential penis onto a website, the FPB can step in and demand the host to shut down the website.

The fact is no one person, company, organization or government runs the Internet. It is "a globally distributed computer network comprised of many voluntarily interconnected autonomous networks”. However, a country can control data! A country can control access. Most infrastructures required to support the Internet worldwide has influence by local governments by way of direct shares of a company. AT&T Inc. MCI (Acquired in 2006 by Verizon), Sprint, and CenturyLink also own some of the largest Internet backbone networks in the world. In South Africa, those who control Telkom and cell phone companies have the last say, they have direct access to the user. But before Internet even arrives on their network, it’s brought in:

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Once the Internet is in the country one or more of these take over:

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

Telkom is the gatekeeper of all ADSL connections and owner of the largest fibre network in the country.

Openserve is a new division of Telkom, which controls wholesale access to South Africa’s only ADSL network!

Vodacom has fibre infrastructures, which is used for backhaul for many of its cellular base stations and to offer fixed-line residential and business fibre services.

These three entities are all linked to government. Can you see the opportunity for abuse here?

It is as if government might want to use data as income revenue no matter the detrimental effects high data has on its people and businesses. If this is not the case can someone explain why we are paying so much for data?

Here are some figures: ADSL is very expensive with prices well above world averages. Costs are around R165 for a 2Mbit/s "Fast" line, R299 for a 4Mbit/s "Faster", and R425 for the 10Mbit/s "Fastest" line. Fortunately, and for now, ADSL costs in South Africa have been decreasing steadily, mainly as a result of competition from mobile network operators but also due to the landing of the SEACOM cable.

Costs set aside, is censorship the main risk? While digital media freedom is generally respected in South Africa and political content is not censored, we enjoy some support for our courts. For example, in September 2012 the Constitutional Court upheld a ruling that sustained pre-screening publications (including Internet content) as required by the 2009 amendments to the Films and Publications Act of 1996 was an unconstitutional limitation on freedom of expression. We need to be aware of the risks.

Access to information and, therefore, the Internet is not about a modern day privilege, it is a necessity for survival.

We are not the worst off in South Africa. Blatant censorship of the Internet in nations like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran are scary.

So how free is access to the Internet?

Sit down. This is a scary percentage.

In 2016 The Freedom on the Net reports suggests that less than 25% of the world enjoys full access to the Internet by definitions access without obstacles, limits on content and violations of user rights.

43% have partly free access.

29% no free access.

An interesting overview of “Enemies of the Internet and Countries under Surveillance” lists:

Jean-Pierre Murray-Kline - Internet & Social Media Specialist

One very supportive fact I need to share in this article is the roll-out of free Internet zones in South Africa. We can already enjoy free Internet at thousands of restaurants and coffee shops. We can likewise enjoy free Internet at libraries and nine of our airports. We also have Project Isizwe and Wi-Fi cities. These are all great things but, of course, certain restrictions apply. I always get nervous when you are offered something but then terms apply. However, let’s give these good things a chance to benefit our people, and rather focus on what we could enjoy if South Africa were to increase Internet access in the future. What if South Africa reduced its overall costs and there were no limitations or censorship?

Business will boom!

Thousands of SMMEs will stand a much better chance.

Our social Internet could help reduce cultural tensions with information sharing.

International trade will be easier.

In context, breaking country borders, the Internet and physical world will merge by way of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The Internet of Things will fully mature. Already the Internet can connect refrigerators, alarm clock and various other household appliances. In another fifteen years or so those connections will extend to vehicles, wallets, health monitors and perhaps even our paper currency.

The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity, fostering more positive relationships among societies extending out of our own borders. Well, that is the theory. The more we know, the less we fear. But, it could also bring on more conflict. Humans are funny that way. The spread of the “Ubernet” will diminish the meaning of borders and new nations, those with shared interests, may emerge online and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.

Great things to come!

But before it can we need to tackle regulation and the privatization of the telecommunication market. The mobile telephony market is generally more open and dynamic. This is probably because there are less state-owned shares in general.

Many African countries, like Kenya and Botswana, have started a privatization process for Telkom Kenya and Botswana Telecommunications Corporation.

Fibre in South Africa is a big game changer. A few years back the average cost of South Africa’s broadband connectivity per month was 10 times higher than that of the UK. Fibre is not a new technology and has been around for almost a decade in South Africa. It has only recently become more visible and available to consumers due to the increase in companies that supply it, as the demand for faster Internet increased.

The South Africa government plans to have fibre cables in place throughout South Africa by 2020. I just wonder if this deadline will be missed, several times like the digital TV deadline. I also wonder what percentage share the state will own and, therefore, control.

Why will the Internet be successful in South Africa?

Will it be due to government support? We will have to see.

My belief is that the Internet will succeed due to our government’s weaknesses, not its strengths. You see, our state cannot respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks. This is due to indecision, missed deadlines and perhaps internal conflict.

South Africa will lead Africa, but we have to try closing the gap worldwide if we want to compete. Africa will follow our example, and if we learn to share and support, Africa will move up in its position as an Internet user. Obstacles to the accessibility of Internet services in Africa include generally low levels of computer literacy in the population, followed by poor infrastructures and high costs of Internet services. Hitting home, stable power availability also creates issues for Internet.

Published May 2017

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