It wasn’t apartheid which hurt SA’s Internet, it was the ANC government

The Presidency of South Africa recently took credit for nearly all of South Africa’s advancements in information and communication technology in its Twenty Years Review.

President Jacob Zuma launched the Twenty Years Review at an event in Pretoria on Tuesday, 11 March 2014, saying that it was government’s “honest and frank” account of how South Africa had fared since 1994.

“Where the facts indicate that we have made progress, we say so, and where the facts indicate that we have challenges and have made mistakes, we also say so,” Zuma said in his speech.

While I can’t speak for the rest of the document, when it comes to the section on communications infrastructure, the government tries to take credit for the achievements of others and never once indicates the numerous mistakes it has made in the last 20 years.

Taking credit for other’s achievements

The section kicks off by crediting the previous regime for setting up broadcast, postal and fixed-line telephone infrastructure, but said that these were mainly focused on the minority.

It goes on to argue that South Africa also lagged behind global advancements in telecommunications, using the late adoption of television in the 1970’s as an example.

So far, nothing too controversial. Then the Twenty Year Review asserts:

Widespread home satellite systems, internet services and mobile cellular telephony only became a reality with the advent of democracy and the end of the apartheid security state.

Before unpacking how ludicrous these claims are, I should emphasise that this column is not a defence of apartheid. Apartheid was horrible in many different ways.

However, the government can not be allowed to rewrite history to suit its rhetoric. Especially right after the President’s statement of how “honest and frank” the review document is.

Let’s start with the implication that the “apartheid security state” had anything to do with the adoption of Internet in South Africa.

The story of the start of the Internet in South Africa has many branches, but the earliest date I’ve heard is 1974 – when South Africa built an ARPANET node.

JoziHub hosted one of the fathers of the Internet, Vint Cerf, last year and his version of events is recorded in the video below (around the 50-minute mark):

Just before the web exploded onto the scene, an informal team of Rhodes students, led by Mike Lawrie, used donated equipment to salvage their own Internet gateway.

This was in 1988. By 1990 the first TCP/IP connection was attempted, trying to link the mainframes at Rhodes and UCT via UNINET. After the link was made, further TCP/IP links were established between universities across South Africa.

Telkom was officially established in 1991 and, according to the early pioneers of the Internet, refused install and lease a line to the USA because of the costs involved.

“Aha!” you may say, “Look at how the apartheid government held us back!”

Except that the web as we know it wasn’t released to the world by Tim Berners-Lee and CERN until 1991.

Mosaic, which is credited as the first graphical browser, was only introduced in 1993. Netscape Navigator, its successor, only launched in the year of our first democratic elections (1994).

The implication that the new regime under the ANC was somehow responsible for bringing the Internet to South Africa therefore doesn’t follow. The Internet as we know it today wasn’t around until just before (or after, depending on how you look at it) they came into power and South Africa’s government certainly had nothing to do with its development.

Our President’s review document goes on:

Institutional arrangements in the pre-democracy era were characterised by a few state-controlled organisations like the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Telkom and the South African Post Office (SAPO), with high levels of state interference and little or no competition.

Since it went there, let’s talk about high levels of state interference and “little or no competition.”

Government, Telkom tries to monopolise SA’s Internet

The year is 1996 and Telkom is trying to convince the newly-formed South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (Satra) that its state-sanctioned monopoly over voice services should extend to the Internet as well.

Keep in mind that at 39.8% of the shareholding, government is the largest shareholder in Telkom. It also indirectly has another 10.5% of the shareholding through the Public Investment Corporation.

In 1997, Satra announced that the Internet is an area of competition in terms of the Telecommunications Act. Mercifully, Telkom’s bid to control the Internet was blocked.

Government’s interference didn’t end there, even though it takes credit for the liberalisation of South Africa’s telecommunications market in a section entitled “Reform of the Communications sector since 1994”:

The enactment of the Electronic Communications Act in 2005 increased market liberalisation.

This statement is true, but it is also a lie by omission. Until 2008 the Department of Communications (DoC) did not allow companies to “self-provision”, or roll out their own networks.

Using the Electronic Communications Act, companies fought the Minister of Communications at the time, the late Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, for the right to self-provision in what has become known as “The Altech Case”.

Despite the high court ruling in favour of Altech Autopage Cellular, the Minister applied for an urgent interdict to prevent companies from competing with Telkom.

Casaburri later dropped the application for the interdict.

Prior to the Altech case, government also tried to block the Seacom and EASSy cables from landing in South Africa. Yet in the Twenty Year Review it tries to take credit for the numerous undersea fibre cables that now adorn our coasts:

Four additional submarine cable systems provide international commercial services in the last five years. These are: SEACOM completed in 2009; EASSy in 2010; MainOne in 2010; and West African Cable System (WACS) in 2011.

Firstly, a correction: the MainOne cable did not end up extending all the way down to South Africa.

Secondly, Casaburri announced in 2007 that all cables landing in South Africa must be majority-owned by South African companies. This would have effectively blocked both the Seacom and EASSy cables from landing.

Seacom competing with Telkom’s SAT3/SAFE undersea cable system, combined with the competition introduced due to the outcome of the Altech case, are credited with the dramatic reduction in ADSL prices that South Africans saw in 2009.

The Emperor wears no clothes

In short, as far as South Africa’s Internet is concerned, any improvements in technology, service levels, and price were fought for tooth-and-nail by private companies and the people of South Africa.

What has been achieved in South Africa’s telecommunications sector is in spite of government, not because of it.

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It wasn’t apartheid which hurt SA’s Internet, it was the ANC government