Extinction Rebellion demands free data for all South Africans during lockdown

In its spirit of social revolution, Extinction Rebellion (XR) in South Africa demands that South African mobile carriers provide three gigabytes of data to all of its people, per month, in order to facilitate communication during the current lockdown and for as long thereafter as conditions remain under pressure as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

The main reasons for this action are to foster calm people amongst people, and to provide support and access to info over this time.

XR spokesperson Elana Azrai states “We need to stay connected to each other and to unfolding developments regarding the pandemic and the response to it. Information can literally save lives in this context. How will housebound South Africans achieve this during this time, which has been exacerbated by loss of income and financial strain? Digital connectivity could also enable some measure of ongoing economic participation for some, and allow people to inform authorities about observed events.”

Extinction Rebellion is a global movement which focuses on the climate and ecological crisis, as well as the systemic underpinnings which give rise to social and environmental injustice. The movement that seeks to compel governments to take action to mitigate the risk of social and ecological collapse.

Internationally, Extinction Rebellion has launched the “Alone Together” campaign which fosters community even as we self-isolate. The call for free data falls within the ambit of this. In the light of the Covid-19 crisis Extinction Rebellion understands the need for urgent humanitarian support and the continuance of its role in addressing inequalities.

Ms Azrai comments: “Some may question what role XR could have in a non-climate crisis, but it is a good fit insofar as our social survival goals are concerned, and as a public citizen we see it as our ethical and civic duty to throw our weight behind calls for life-and-death actions.” Greta Thunberg, international youth climate activist, urges young followers to stay at home, revealing that she had coronavirus symptoms and is self-isolating. She said on Tuesday that “the swift and far-ranging economic and social shifts being brought in to stem the coronavirus pandemic showed that the rapid action needed to curb climate change was also possible.” Extinction Rebellion regrets that this Covid-19 pandemic is an express foretaste of the very real threat of extinction on a global level whatever the cause, and hopes that it will spur people on to take threats such as climate extinction more seriously.

The South Africa cellular providers addressed in this action are particularly Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, Telkom (Mobile) and Rain (Pty) Ltd.

American carriers have taken this initiative early – Verizon is giving all mobile customers 15GB and T-Mobile unlimited data to customers. Comcast is offering its customers free unlimited data and has made its Wi-Fi hotspots free to everyone for 60 days. AT&T is waiving late fees and won’t cut off internet service, also giving free access to its public Wi-Fi.

On 19 March, Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), the mobile telecoms industry’s regulatory body, appealed to companies to consider lowering data costs in a bid to ensure productivity during the period the coronavirus outbreak. It recorded “an increased need for internet connectivity in the face of a growing number of employees working from home, as well as early school closures, as part of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the deadly virus.” To date, however, the industry has remained ominously silent on this appeal, and South African providers have remained obstinate in their empathetic delivery and – it appears – line suspensions of late payers continue.

MTN’s CEO Godfrey Motsa announced a drop in the price of monthly data bundles to R99 for 1GB, effective from April 15. On the same day that this announcement took place, Vodacom’s CEO Shameel Joosub sent an email to its users explaining how it had streamlined its operations for enhanced usage, giving the impression that it was focussed on maximising revenue during this disastrous time. The mobile operator has also announced it will “sacrifice R2.7 billion a year”, also from 1 April – a Vodacom gigabyte of data will cost “no more” than R99.

It is noteworthy that these cost decreases come into effect the day before the lockdown is scheduled to end, and that these actions are unrelated to pandemic mitigation, merely falling in line with the two operators being ordered by the South African Competition Commission to cut their data prices by a third to half or face prosecution. At the time of this ruling, competition commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele called the (existing) pricing “a bias against the poor”.
The recent cost reductions from the providers appear to be taking advantage of a critical social development – South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown – as time for an opportune publicity stunt and a prime revenue-generating promotion, with the welfare of the underprivileged least present in their considerations.

MTN Uganda, the country’s largest telecoms firm and a trading division of South Africa’s MTN, has eliminated some charges on its mobile money platform to “help spur greater use of digital transactions” and discourage the use of cash as a way to “potentially slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak”. Yet the company remains silent on South African initiatives of any kind. And, Rain’s goal is to offer South Africans a choice of affordable unlimited data products – still commercial promotions without any benevolent overtones whatsoever. In mitigation, Vodacom is offering further discounted bundle offers to pre-paid customers in over two thousand suburbs and villages where the majority of people are living beneath the poverty line.

None of this addresses directly the dire need of South Africans for comprehensive, cost effective – meaning free-of-charge in the circumstances – and uninterrupted service provision from its mobile provider giants. Extinction Rebellion goes on record as stating that local mobile carriers’ persistence in staying in the background of the coronavirus mitigation strategy and its energetic participation by all South Africans countrywide is morally and humanely categorically unacceptable.