Release systemic chokes that trap us in inequality

Zero-rating mobile e-services

The project aims to secure the zero-rating of Public Benefit Organisations’ (PBOs) Internet offerings. This will enable those who cannot afford data to access resources that improve their knowledge capital and ensure that they are not excluded from the pace of innovation.

Zero-rating of educational content would help Gogo Tobeka from Keiskammahoek assist her grandson in his learning.

The disconnect

This explains why the project exists

Mobile data is too expensive and excludes a lot of people from access to information and services. If all South Africans have access to the information and services offered on mobile platforms, it would improve our quality of life and grow our economy.

There are a handful of strategies that could bring about a quick and radical shake-up of the social and economic landscape in South Africa, however, one of these is mobile technology. The Census 2011 found that 89% of homes have at least one cellphone in working order, compared to 21% with access to computers and 15% with access to a landline. Yet, the majority of people in South Africa do not have any access to the Internet. The reason is not a lack of infrastructure – there are cellphone towers across the country – but rather the price of connection.

The cost of 1GB of data in South Africa averages R78.50, depending on the mobile network, which is higher than in other African countries and in Europe.1 How much 1GB of data costs in South Africa vs the World Even if this is reduced to R50 for 1GB, the price would still be too expensive for most South Africans. This is due to the fact that over 55% of South Africans (30 million people) live in poverty, living on less than R992 per month.2 Poverty and Equity Brief Currently, they would have to spend up to 15% of their income to buy just 1GB of mobile data. Until mobile data prices fall to below R15 per GB – regardless of the amount of data that is bought at a time – mobile data will remain unaffordable to the majority of South Africans; national development will remain hamstrung and the digital divide is unlikely to be closed.


The majority of South Africans are stuck in an inequality trap with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Most are stuck in intergenerational loops of exclusion with few chances to escape. Breaking this cycle requires a fundamental change in life trajectories, starting in the womb.

Think of a Möbius strip – just one twist in the circle allows you to trace a completely different pattern. Instead of being stuck on the inside of a loop, you emerge on the outside. In the same way, escaping the inequality trap requires a fundamental twist to set South Africa on a new path.

The twist in thinking

This explains how the project approaches problems

Greater affordability and wider access to mobile data for socio-economic development are vital. Typically, zero-rating is the process of providing subsidised digital content and/or access to the Internet at no charge to the user. One of its key objectives is to increase access to online information and resources for users who cannot afford the cost of data.

In 2013, DGMT commissioned a study to look at ways to reduce the cost of mobile data in South Africa as a means to contribute to socio-economic development. Subsequently, DGMT has pursued a strategy in which the cost of mobile services provided by PBOs is zero-rated, with costs offset by the statutory obligations of mobile network operators (MNOs). 

A critical policy instrument was introduced in 2022 to build a bridge across the digital divide. Since then, mobile network operators are legally obligated to zero-rate the digital content and services provided by PBOs. The legal requirement is linked to the terms of their conditions of licences for additional broadband spectrum. But this is not happening as it should, because there is no single database for qualifying PBOs. 

This is why DGMT has been working with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies to find urgent solutions. The most efficient solution involves fast-tracking the establishment of a Social Innovation Register (SIR), which will be a single database for qualifying public benefit organisations.

The trajectory change

This explains what the project is doing to make a difference

DGMT proposes that the zero-rating of mobile services and content, offered by registered PBOs and government entities promoting socio-economic development, should be managed through a Social Innovation Register (SIR). The SIR would allow approved PBOs to provide users with free mobile data access to their online services. 

The functions of the registry include:

  • Maintenance of the register of zero-rated sites;
  • Records of the utilisation of zero-rated sites;
  • Continuing review of the digital content of zero-rated sites to ensure they comply with the public benefit activities outlined in Schedule 9 of the Income Tax Act; and
  • Reporting back to mobile network operators, oversight structures and the general public.

This will allow people to access important information and services, as well as to access opportunities and contribute to the economy.

Trying to change life trajectories is ambitious and profound. It requires us to radically influence the lives of individuals and to be part of changing the circumstances in which they live.

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