Digital Colonialism: South Africa’s Education Transformation in the Shadow of Silicon Valley

PhD dissertation, Rhodes University

392 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 2019 Last revised: 21 Jul 2021

See all articles by Michael Kwet

Michael Kwet

Yale University - Information Society Project

Date Written: March 1, 2019


Over the past few decades, US-based technology corporations and surveillance agencies colonized the global tech ecosystem. This dissertation proposes a conceptual and theoretical framework to understand how the United States is reinventing colonialism in the Global South through the domination of digital technology. As a policy analysis of digital colonialism – defined as the use of digital tech for political, economic, and social control – it provides a detailed assessment of Operation Phakisa Education (OPE), the secretive plan to fast-track a national e-education rollout to all South African public schools.

The study contrasts the Western model of digital capitalism against what I refer to as “People’s Technology for People’s Power” – a nod to the anti-apartheid education movement of the 1980s. People’s Technology merges socialist democracy with technologies and perspectives developed by the Free Software community. It offers a vision for digital socialism that aims to transform the tech ecosystem into a global digital commons based on decentralized ownership and control over the means of computation.

The dissertation demonstrates how the national e-education initiative is a primary vessel for Silicon Valley corporations to capture South African education, economy, and society. By placing general-purpose Big Tech products in public schools (such as Microsoft Windows or Google Android), young people and teachers become consumers of Big Tech software, and society is locked into their platforms, products, and ecosystems. By placing education-specific products into schools (such as Office 365 Education or G Suite for Education), public education becomes partially privatized through the educational features designed by Silicon Valley.

The South African government has a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) policy preference explicitly designed to resist US-based corporate colonization, yet policymakers are presently ignoring it. Instead, SA policymakers embrace digital capitalism expressed through the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” narrative. OPE aims to serve the technocratic aims of the state-corporate ruling class, which seeks to “transform” education, economy, and society through Big Data surveillance of teachers and pupils.

The dissertation concludes that US technological and conceptual dominance in South Africa constitutes digital colonialism. It emphasizes the need for public inclusion in policy formation and the central importance of People’s Tech to a free and equitable society. Current scholarship critical of digital technology neglects the Free Software community and the problem of digital colonialism, and subsequent literature would be enriched by addressing these issues.

Keywords: digital colonialism, imperialism, free and open source software, privacy, big data, education technology, artificial intelligence, South Africa, apartheid, Silicon Valley

Suggested Citation

Kwet, Michael, Digital Colonialism: South Africa’s Education Transformation in the Shadow of Silicon Valley (March 1, 2019). PhD dissertation, Rhodes University, Available at SSRN: or

Michael Kwet (Contact Author)

Yale University - Information Society Project ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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