Still no internet for Eastern Cape libraries

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A local learner researches a school assignment in the Fingo Village Library. Many learners made use of the free internet connections in Makana’s seven public libraries before these services were suspended in September 2017. The Eastern Cape Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture (DSRAC) failed to appoint a new service provider towards the end of last year. Pic: Tiffany Majero

By Sphume Ndlovu, Rod Amner, and Jessica Evans*

There has been no public internet service in any of the Eastern Cape libraries since September last year.

According to provincial Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture (DSRAC) spokesperson, Andile Nduna, this is due to a failure to make provision for these services in the 2017-18 DSRAC budget and a breakdown in the relationship with the existing service provider.

Free internet services are still available to users in libraries in all the other eight provinces.

However, Nduna promised that internet access would be restored to libraries by November this year.

Free internet in libraries was made possible after 2014 as part of a R3-billion grant to the National Library for the countrywide upgrading of libraries. Internet access was procured from a national service provider, Vox Telekom, and paid for through the national Department of Arts and Culture (DAC). The internet project is known as Mzanzi Libraries Online.

However, in 2017, the DAC handed over the responsibility for managing and budgeting for these internet services to its provincial Departments of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture (DSRACs).

Nduna confirmed that the Eastern Cape DSRAC failed to budget for this transition.

He said the process was further complicated when negotiations between Eastern Cape DSRAC and Vox over the renewal of the contract broke down in August 2017. He added that the cause of the breakdown was the failure to agree on whether the internet hardware that had been installed in libraries by Vox would be owned by the service provider or by the libraries themselves.

Vox has a different account of what happened. Janie Maritz, who was until recently the accounts spokesperson of Vox Telecom, Eastern Cape, told Grocott’s Mail in June this year that her company had withdrawn its services after Eastern Cape libraries had amassed a debt of over R1 million on their Vox accounts.

Meanwhile, according to the minutes of a recent Makana Library Advisory Committee meeting, Vox has begun the process of dismantling and removing its hardware from Makana’s libraries.

Nduna said DSRAC had earlier this year made provision in the new 2018-19 budget for internet in libraries and was now in the process of finalising the contract for a new tender to supply all the province’s libraries.

He promised that internet services would be on-stream by November 2018.

Nduna said DSRAC had attempted to appoint an alternative internet service provider earlier in 2017, and was quoted in Ground Up in May that the services would be rolled out in June. However, Nduna said it had been discovered that this provider would not be able to deliver suitable internet connections to more “rural libraries” and the tender was not granted.

Meanwhile, Rhodes University library director Ujala Satgoor, said the lack of internet services in Eastern Cape libraries was “a travesty”.

She said that “a lack of political will and vision” and underspend in provincial budgets had led to the general neglect of libraries and, in some cases, library closures.

In a Makana Public Safety and Community Services portfolio committee meeting in August, Councillor Brian Fargher spoke about the community’s frustration at the lack of internet and the collapse of other basic infrastructure and services in libraries.

Fargher said parents and pupils had staged a demonstration at Middle Terrace and that he had written to the MEC, to no avail.

“This is serious,” he told councillors and officials. “With students unable to access the internet, this means they can’t do school projects, they can’t apply for bursaries – which means they have less chance of accessing tertiary education.”

Last year, the Currie Street Community Library committee wrote to DSRAC’s Sarah Baartman District office about the internet shutdown, along with a long list of other concerns about the library.

Eight months later, after several attempts to get answers from DSRAC’s district headquarters in Milner Road, the library committee received a response in late June from DSRAC senior manager Vuyiseka Nokenke.

In the letter, Nokenke said that while she understood the frustration of the committee, the matter was “regrettably beyond our control”.

“Procurement processes that are to be followed in order to appoint a new service provider are now delaying the whole process,” Nokenke said.

She said that the committee’s concerns would be forwarded to the Head of Department “for his imperative attention”.

Currie Street Community Library committee secretary and liaison officer, Lizanne Du Preez, who is also a teacher at George Dickerson primary school, said she has witnessed the consequences of the public libraries in the area not having internet and its impact on school pupils. “Learners cannot do research projects,” said Du Preez.

In an interview with Grocott’s Mail in mid-September, Nduna said that DSRAC regretted the lack of internet services in libraries. The department had decided to provide all Eastern Cape libraries with copies of CAPS-aligned study guides by the end of September to compensate for the lack of internet connectivity.

Grocott’s phoned a number of libraries around the province on 3 October – none had received the promised study guides by that time.

*Additional reporting by Sue Maclennan

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