The legacy of apartheid

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
28 March, 2017
Editorial: 83
Fecha de publicación original: 2 septiembre, 1997

6th in a series of articles on the impact of telecommunications on developing countries.

When two parties fight, a third party is often the winner

One’s professional interests weigh heavily. Despite the fact that I promised myself a relaxing holiday, I couldn’t help taking a peek at the virtual part of South Africa even though the real one which unfolded before my eyes was fascinating enough on its own. But the goat is drawn to the mountain and the hyena to carrion and one needs to keep up to date on the biological explosion which is so evident on the African continent. South Africa rates 16th amongst users of the Internet in the world as far as hosts and dominions are concerned The difference between it and the rest of the African continent is vast, as much as the gap between industrial and developing countries. It has, therefore, all the characteristics of the former but with all the handicaps of the latter. The fate of the Internet in President Mandela’s country will, undoubtedly, serve as an example to all its neighbours who recognise the potential role of South Africa as the economic driving force in the region. For that reason, the decision to “nationalise” Internet or, on the other hand, to allow the Net to operate as a deregulated and open space is a very important one. The main force behind nationalisation is predictably the Minister of Communication and the power behind it the South African telephone company Telkom, which was granted the privilege of a 5-year monopoly last year. Telkom, as was the case in Singapore, is trying to develop a structure which will make it necessary to register every new web and to get a licence for keeping it on the Net. Logically enough, the Internet industry and hundreds of users are openly opposing this move to strangle development of the Net while it is still in the nest, long before it has even learnt to fly. Nevertheless, the debate in South Africa, while similar to those in many other developing countries, has some unique features which are largely the result of the enormous disparities introduced by the criminal system of apartheid.

To begin with, the majority of the white cities continue to be overwhelmingly white, with the notable exception of Johannesburg. On their outskirts, the urban black townships still sprawl subjected to the rigours of the preposterous absurdity of segregation. Lack of communication facilities, transport and basic services, give this landscape very peculiar contours: millions of people spend a substantial part of their day walking from one place to another, kilometres and kilometres every day. The system of apartheid has razed the human landscape and the priority now is not so much to reconstruct the social fabric but to build it from zero. In this environment there is a battle of priorities and the political agenda suffers the vicissitudes of a young democracy with a bad past: at the same time as it is clear that emergency measures of peremptory necessity need to be taken, more and more cases of administrative corruption and well-organised schemes for syphoning off economic resources to the least illuminated sectors of the economy, either straight into their pockets or via the black market, are constantly coming to light.

Internet is just another little boat on these rough seas. With the substantial difference that it is a tool of great strategic value for addressing the problems of economic and social development which are of central concern in the country. However, it appears that the role that the Net could play has not been fully accepted in decision making centres (in this regard, South Africa is similar to Europe), where communications, transport (real and virtual), telecommunications and the Information Society make up a confused package except for the most affluent sectors of the population. The result, for the moment at least, is a serious deepening of the vast gap which divides the info-literate from the rest of the population. Just as is happening elsewhere, the question is not how many artifacts, equipment or infrastructure are deployed, but instead the density of the information which each individual and organisation connected to the networks manages. And this is precisely where Internet’s potential as an equaliser in the politics of development lies or, on the other hand, as multiplier of inequalities if policies to disseminate interconnection and interaction amongst users are not put into practice.

Thus, the conflict that is growing in South Africa around the Net, both Telkom’s attempt to control it and opposition to it, basically reflects different visions of development models in the context of globalisation of the economy. On the one hand, the more authoritarian tendencies within Mandela’s government do not want to open a coffer that they imagine full of riches but have not yet tasted. On the other, sectors determined to create industrially robust and socially independent virtual communities fear that they might be too feeble to deal with the avalanche coming from the exterior. Curiously enough, both sides recognise that education and science should be granted comparative advantages as opposed to the private sector, even if these might affect the sacrosanct laws of competition which they hurl at each other whenever they need to justify their respective positions.

The final decision on the future of the Internet in South Africa depends to a large extent on the South African Telecommunications Regulation Authority (SATRA). This public body is headed by a man whose curriculum unmistakably highlights the particularities of the South African political scene. Nape Maepa went to the US in 1965 where he obtained a doctorate in electronic engineering. For twenty years he worked in Kansas City and became president of an engineering company there for three years. In 1993, the year before the elections and the most violent of the moribund white regime (so much so that some experts began to doubt that elections would take place ), he returned to South Africa to join a group of black businessmen in the African Telecommunications Forum. He became director of Fundis Community Development, created to stimulate economic development in poor areas, and of Vulindela Bulatsela Corp.which helped black business find joint ventures in the high tech industry. Maepa is one of those convinced that the Internet, and I quote, “will be a weapon to repair the damage done in the past, above all in education.” A statement which, nevertheless, gives no indication of his intentions regarding which legal framework he favours for the Net

In the meantime, telecommunications continue to play a dynamic role in the South African economy in aspects which are visible as well as those that are not. The New South Africa has produced a vast organised crime structure which has its headquarters in Johannesburg. The impossible task of fulfilling the enormous expectations aroused after the elections, vast unemployment amongst the black population, the breakdown of police and paramilitary organisations, administrative corruption and the impoverishment of industries that had been protected by discriminatory policies, has created fertile ground for feeding a black market with a highly organised leadership which lives off one of the highest rates of street crime in the world. The daily hijacking of cars with on the spot murder of the driver included if necessary, bank heists of armoured vehicles carried out by gangs of up to 50 fully equipped individuals or the dismantling of kilometres of cable to get the copper out of them, are aided and abetted by carefully “oiled” systems for distributing the merchandise quickly and suitably processed to Singapore or Belgium or wherever there is a demand for it.

Mercedes Benz and BMW are the hijackers favourite cars. To combat this particular organised crime trade, manufacturers are building a microchip into each car so that they can be traced by satellite in case of the theft. Everyone is waiting to see what the response of the “mafias” will be to this particular incursion of the Information Society onto their turf, based, by the way, on an amazing dominion of the most advanced telecommunications resources.


To find out more about the Internet in South Africa, the best access is Ananzi, a search engine that receives 300 new webs per week. The Map of Internet suppliers in South Africa is also interesting.


Translation: Bridget King.