The Internet in South Africa, and the telecommunications sector in general, would have looked very different if it weren’t for passionate techies.
South Africa’s history is filled with people who challenged Telkom’s monopoly, for example, and helped drive down the cost to connect.
This includes those who worked to overcome the technical and institutional barriers to establishing South Africa’s first Internet link, to those who helped build the vast networks we connect with today.
Selecting just a handful of legends from South Africa’s tech and telecoms space is a tall order, so for this article we set a few limits to keep it manageable.
Mainly, we looked at significant contributions to Internet access in the country.
For a different perspective, the Internet Society also maintains a list of African Internet Pioneers.
A logical place to begin is the man who is credited with setting up South Africa’s first TCP/IP link to the United States.
In 1988, Mike Lawrie lead an informal team at Rhodes University which used donated equipment to salvage their own Internet gateway.
By 1990 they attempted their first TCP/IP connection, linking computers at Rhodes and the University of Cape Town via UNINET. In 1991, the first international TCP/IP connection was made between Rhodes and the home of Randy Bush in Portland, Oregon.
Two men from other universities helped Lawrie in achieving the milestone: Alan Barrett from the University of Natal, and Chris Pinkham from the University of Cape Town.
Gerrit van der Veer
While Mike Lawrie is known for establishing the first Internet links, there were people involved in transcontinental networking initiatives before that.
Specifically, a US delegation helped a team from the South African Railways department to set up a local Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) node in 1974.
Gerrit van der Veer, the CEO of SAA during the Helderberg disaster, was one of the engineers who worked on the project with one of the fathers of the Internet, Vint Cerf.
After helping Lawrie set up the first international Internet links, Alan Barrett cofounded the country’s first Internet service provider – The Internetworking Company of Southern Africa (TICSA).
TICSA later became UUNET Internet Africa, which was acquired by Verizon in 2006 and traded as Verizon Business. MTN bought Verizon Business South Africa in March 2009.
Barrett also got involved in Internet governance, joining AFRINIC and was appointed as CEO of the organisation in 2015.
Although born in Singapore to a military family, Chris Pinkham moved to South Africa when he was 9 and was forced to naturalise in the 1980s.
Pinkham cofounded TICSA with Alan Barrett, and later went on to work at Amazon.
He co-developed the idea that would become Amazon Web Services, and headed up the team that built the technology in Cape Town.
From 2015 until 2017, he was vice-president of engineering at Twitter, and in July last year he joined the board of Jumo – a financial technology startup based in Cape Town.
Alan Knott-Craig was the first CEO of Vodacom, the first and largest mobile operator in South Africa.
With the help of other industry heavyweights such as Pieter Uys and Jannie van Zyl, Vodacom under Knott-Craig became one of the first mobile networks in the world to launch 3G data services.
Not only did Knott-Craig lead the construction of the largest cellular network in the country, he came out of retirement to take the reins at upstart mobile network Cell C.
There he lead a drive to reduce prices and increase network quality until he suffered a stroke in 2013, resulting in his departure as CEO.
He remained in an advisory role as an executive director for Cell C.
Ronnie Apteker co-founded a company called The Internet Solution in 1993 with two friends from university, Thomas McWalter and Philip Green, along with David Frankel.
The Internet Solution (TIS) would ultimately become Internet Solutions (IS), and be sold to Dimension Data.
In a report titled Internet Access in South Africa 2010, Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, stated that TIS was one of Barrett and Pinkham’s first clients at TICSA.
“While TICSA clearly gave birth to the Internet Service Provider industry… it was the arrival of TIS that commercialised the Internet access business,” said Goldstuck.
Apteker remains at Internet Solutions, but is also an author and film producer. He joined Thinkst Applied Research in 2016.
Rudi Jansen served as the CEO of MWEB from 2005 until 2012, and his stint there will be best remembered for introducing affordable uncapped ADSL in 2010.
When many other players in the industry were saying that uncapped data was unsustainable, Jansen doubled down and said anyone who thinks we could go back to a “capped world” is misguided.
Jansen was right, with even staunch opponents like Internet Solutions and Telkom offering uncapped broadband services in the end.
Jansen also fought for free and open peering. Combined with the availability of international content at NAPAfrica’s peering points, this resulted in dramatic reductions in the bandwidth costs of Internet service providers.
Jansen holds an independent non-executive directorship for CapeVin Investments, and is an independent non-executive director at Dark Fibre Africa.
While Niel Schoeman’s presence in South Africa’s telecommunications sector has been relatively short, his impact has been tremendous.
His fibre infrastructure company emerged on the scene to win a bid from the Parkhurst Residents Association to roll out a fibre network, and the name Vumatel made headlines.
It opened a veritable floodgate, with neighbourhoods across South Africa launching bids to get infrastructure companies to roll out fibre.
Other companies who had been rolling out fibre slowly suddenly kicked into high gear. Vumatel continued rolling out its network across Johannesburg, eventually expanding to cities across South Africa.
Adding to this, Schoeman announced that Vumatel is rolling out fibre to townships.
Provided they can prove the business case for offering 100Mbps uncapped fibre for R89 per month in Alexandra, Shoeman believes they can connect 2.5 million households, or around 10 million people, within two years.
Schoeman recently stepped out of the role as CEO of Vumatel, and became its executive chairman.
You will find few people with a CV as impressive as that of Mike Silber.
Silber served as a non-executive director at the .ZA Domain Name Authority from 2003 to 2015. He was also a non-executive director of TENET: The Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa from 2011 to 2017.
He was an adjudicator for the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association from 2005 to 2009, and he was a consultant attorney for Michalsons from 2005 to 2009.
His involvement with the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) dates back to 2005, when he served as a regulatory adviser until 2009. Since August 2009, he has been an ISPA director.
From 2009 to 2011, Silber was Neotel’s regulator counsel for policy and special projects. In January 2011, he moved to Liquid Telecom as head of legal and commercial, a position he still holds.
Silber is also a director of the FTTX Council Africa since 2016, and has been an ICANN director since 2009.