Bridging the Digital Divide in South Africa

The Open Source community addresses the sensitive language issue in South Africa.

South Africa has 11 official languages. It also has one of the greatest divides between rich and poor in the world, and this divide is most evident in the technology area. The IT world unwittingly has excluded the masses as technology has raced on leaving many South Africans behind. Socio-economic circumstances, imbalanced education policies under the apartheid regime, as well as language barriers, are some of the factors recognised in this exclusion.

Dr Neville Alexander, political activist, who was imprisoned on Robben Island during ex-president Nelson Mandela's time there, and director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, has been a key player in the language debate. He emphasises the need to move away from being a monolinguistic society:

An English-only, or even an English-mainly, policy necessarily condemns most people, and thus the country as a whole, to a permanent state of mediocrity, since people are unable to be spontaneous, creative and self-confident if they cannot use their first language.

Navigating the cyber world is daunting enough for first-time travelers, without having to do it in a language that is not their own. The translation of computer programmes into South African languages such as Xhosa was virtually uncharted territory until last year. Most computer software is only available in English and poorly supported in South Africa's second language, Afrikaans. The other nine official languages are not visible in any form of software—interesting when considering that Zulu is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, with Xhosa a close second.

To address this, translate.org.za (www.translate.org.za) has been set up to translate computer software into various official languages of South Africa. This is the first project of The Zuza Software Foundation, a nonprofit organisation aiming to promote development and open-source software in Africa. Zuza, meaning “gift given freely” in a local African language, is working on proposals directed at internationalisation, business development and education using open-source software. Zuza is responsible for another project, Linuxlab (www.linuxlab.org.za), which provides disadvantaged schools with refurbished computers and free support.

The translation project began with KDE, but the focus has changed due to the fact that it is not cross-platform. KDE 3.0 includes Xhosa, Zulu and Venda. The translation and technical teams are now focusing on Mozilla and OpenOffice because they run on Windows, Linux and Mac, making it easier for any computer user to install it and exposing a greater user base to open source. Zuza unashamedly uses these products to promote OSS.

The translation is done using gettext, the GNU localisation architecture and tools. The advantage of gettext is that it separates programming from translating—translations can be added or improved because they are not compiled into the application. The team is using KBabel to do the actual translation. A GUI tool is vital, as the translators are not highly technical, and it is an easier environment in which for them to work. Mozilla and OpenOffice have their own format of translatable text, which is very different from gettext PO files.

Founder and Director of translate.org.za Dwayne Bailey says one tool is better than three:

We have invested a lot in learning KBabel, which works on gettext PO files, and expecting our team of translators to learn a new tool or to edit files manually is not productive. We don't want an environment where they need three tools, but would rather allow all of our work to be used seamlessly across all three projects.

In order to address this, the team built scripts to convert Mozilla DTD files to PO files and similarly, use scripts to convert OpenOffice to PO and back. These shield the translators from the different formats and allow the teams to reuse existing work across all projects easily. And, the conversion of these formats is in the hands of technically skilled people and not the translators.

Internationalisation in Linux with KDE is well advanced but as new languages are added, shortcomings are highlighted, and this brings new features to the internationalisation framework. In projects like Mozilla and OpenOffice, you can observe a certain internationalisation immaturity in that they don't adequately cater for different plural forms, something that KDE is managing well. However, one of the advantages of open source is that these shortcomings are addressed quickly. Another area that would help develop the project and assist internationalisation would be the creation of a web-based translation tool to allow remote translators to contribute to the project easily without having to install software or even use Linux.

Bailey clarifies why he puts so many hours into the translation project:

The Free Software community conveys a spirit of cooperation and sharing, and after you have worked in the environment for a while and realise how much you have gained, you often feel compelled to contribute something back—even if it is just a well-thought-out bug report. And deep down, there is probably a feeling of some fame. The bug reports got boring after a while, and localisation was an area I felt I could contribute to without major programming expertise.

It is not only about the technical side of the project—language is a highly sensitive issue in South Africa. Neville Alexander states “...language policy and practice in our post-apartheid society is a critical component of the ensemble of antiracism strategies on which we depend for the real and visible transformation of this country.”

No commercial software vendors have addressed adequately the language issue in South Africa, but in one year the Open Source community has. Bailey explains,

In South Africa many languages have been marginalized through the history of apartheid, which has led to a lack of language pride. Seeing Linux users working in German and French environments made me realise that this could do the same for South African languages. I hope that simply allowing people to use the computer in their mother tongue will stimulate pride in their language. Also, learning something in your mother tongue is naturally easier.

South African Linux support and development company, Obsidian Systems, developed and sponsored this project, sharing their premises, resources and expertise to get the translation up and running. The Shuttleworth Foundation, recently publicised due to its founder's trip to space as the “First African in Space”, has provided the finances for this project that has just begun to scratch the surface of endless opportunity in computer accessibility. Mark Shuttleworth, who sold Thawte to VeriSign for $575 million, developed his product on open-source software. One of his foundation's key aims is to develop open-source software in South Africa, which is beginning to gain inroads into the lifeblood of the mainstream IT sector, both governmental and private.

The translation team is targeting the 11 official languages of South Africa first. Once those projects are mature, the team will look beyond their borders to other parts of the African continent. “Open source provides a way for Africans to help themselves—not to have to wait for the first world—but to get up and do it for themselves! Nobody else is going to translate software into Swahili”, says Bailey.

At this stage translate.org.za is also providing employment for young university graduates who are the translators, as well as students who are working off their fees owed to the University of Cape Town through bursaries.

Obviously the issues that surround language, inequality and poverty are broad and impact every sphere of life, but Zuza aims to play their part. “Translation does not remove all barriers to computer access”, says Bailey, “but it helps to eliminate one. This together with low-cost computers, open-source software and low-cost internet access will go a long way to making a dramatic IT impact on South Africans, especially the disadvantaged.”

The first step is getting software translated, but without actually getting people in front of computers, the translation would not have the intended impact. This is where a relationship with the second arm of Zuza, Linuxlab, is vital. The two projects need to work hand in hand. Linuxlab is looking at low-cost, thin-client solutions for disadvantaged schools. In South Africa these schools often serve people whose first language is not English.

Linuxlab's mission is to promote universal access to computers and Internet in schools, allow educators to create and refine open content and empower learners with a high-quality, high-tech IT learning environment. The project's director, Dr Evan Summers, believes that the culture of learning and sharing of knowledge in the scientific tradition is furthered by the GNU Free Software Foundation, which respects learners as participants in the software community, encourages unhindered enthusiasm for information technology and fosters a culture of collaboration in our information society.

The first Linuxlab to be deployed was the Alexander Sinton School in Cape Town, using a Linux server sponsored by The Shuttleworth Foundation and recycled 486 PCs as diskless X terminals with the goal of achieving a cost-per-seat of under $100 including network and server.

Mexico's Red Escolar (Schools Network), a similar concept, failed due to the way the programme was implemented. Dr Edgar Villanueva Nunez states in a widely publicised rebuttal to the general manager of Microsoft, Peru:

... the driving forces behind the Mexican project used license costs as their main argument, instead of other reasons specified in our project, which are far more essential. Because of the conceptual mistake, and as a result of the lack of effective support from the SEP (Secretary of State for Public Education), the assumption was made that to implant free software in schools it would be enough to drop their software budget and send them a CD-ROM with GNU/Linux instead. Of course this failed, and it couldn't have been otherwise, just as school laboratories fail when they use proprietary software and have no budget for implementation and maintenance.

In this attempt to introduce the masses to computer technology, it is vital that high value is placed on skills transfer. With this in mind, Dr Summers conducts regular free Linux workshops for educators and has developed Precis, a new Java-inspired programming environment suitable for teaching Linux programming in schools. The schools drive the project with involvement from both educators and learners, with Linuxlab helping to get the initial “seed” lab up and running, transferring skills and offering ongoing support to the school. What Linuxlab asks in return is that these schools co-opt educators from neighbouring schools to participate in the Linux workshops and that they in turn assist those schools in setting up their own labs when they are e-ready. And so the process continues.

The goal to have a high-quality IT learning environment available to all learners is not a mission impossible. Summers explains:

An interesting trend is that organisations in Europe and the US are looking to offload large quantities of old PCs that are not suitably upgradeable for Windows XP, since dumping them would contravene US environmental legislation owing to their lead content. It is predicted that the number of PCs that will become obsolete in the US alone over the next ten years is in the hundreds of millions. This could give further impetus to the PC refurbishing industry in South Africa, creating welcome employment opportunities and increasing the availability of inexpensive low-spec refurbished computers, which are suitable as diskless Linux X terminals for school labs.

Linuxlab assists schools in identifying potential sources for old PCs that can be recycled as diskless X terminals. At Alexander Sinton School the server uses the Linux Terminal Server Project and the KDE desktop, including the localisation from translate.org.za. Volunteers from the Cape Town Linux community deploy the labs. The school recruits members from the community and neighbouring schools to assist with preparing the lab, including the network cabling and furniture, in order to keep the costs of the seed lab under $1,000. This empowers educators in disadvantaged schools to realise the dream of providing a high-quality IT learning environment for their learners.

The gap between those empowered by technology and those who have been excluded must not widen. The only thing that needs to be broadened is the thinking of those who believe technology is for the privileged few. The Open Source philosophy flouts this belief. Translate.org.za and Linuxlab.org.za are two projects that are striving to make technology accessible to all South Africans.

email: linda@obsidian.co.za

Linda Martindale is a freelance journalist working from Cape Town, South Africa with a great interest in open-source software and Linux. She spends much of her time on local social issues and has recently published her first book, Celebrate Hope, which is a collection of success stories coming out of the disadvantaged areas of the city.

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