Philip Copeman

Author and Activist

How opening telecoms access and building a culture of open source development will help South Africa cross the digital divide.

The ANC has finally woken up to the fact that we need an ICT strategy for South Africa, but no sign yet what this may actually entail. Sadly, the announcement echoes the hapless 2011 call for “5 Million Jobs”. The costs of this objective is simply not addressed, and under our current neo colonial structure would be impossible to achieve. On the upside, at least we have come to a national realisation that as a country, we are squarely on the wrong side of the digital divide. Previously we did not even see ICT as a priority, this realisation at least offers us the slim chance to “transform”. The question is, are we willing as a country and do we have an elected Government, capable of prioritising the changes required to succeed?

ICT is the neural network of a knowledge economy. High grade accessible ICT enables us to think collectively. Clearly our system is broken and we are slipping further and further behind. Healing our system is a kin to repairing our ability as an economy to think. We should take this endeavour very seriously. I propose here that figuring out what has to be done is not as difficult as taking the route to get there. The mountain that stands before us is the pervasive short run thinking that prioritises todays problems over long term development. The inability to take long run decisions, effects all African thinking irrespective of tribe or race. The racist thinking that pervades current Government policy is not going to help.

The ICT challenges facing South Africa are remarkably simple to isolate. One, we have a Telecoms environment that strangles our citizens and gives us one of the highest costs in the world for Internet access. This amounts to a tax on thinking. Because of the cost we use the Internet less than we could and the reault is an unproductive environment. Two, we have little to no culture of software development. Our best developers leave South Africa for more lucrative offshore opportunities, leaving us with a local ICT industry of salesmen,  integrators and spin doctors who keep us in a yoke of software rentals and foreign licence payments to their neo colonial masters. We create little software of our own and we have become a Nation of Installers.

Now for the good news - there is a way to fix this. Close the telecoms and software tollgates, free up our ICT regulation and use of the power of collaboration to rapidly turn the situation around. We need to focus on developing our own industry, not on working out how to best use foreign products.

The legacy of the first problem, inaccessible telecoms, is routed in the ANC's first term of office. At the time it seemed like a really good idea. What could be better than selling off telecoms licences for lucrative fees that could be recovered by future billings of our citizens? It was an easy target as ICT users were predominantly white. It was all in the name of transferring wealth from the previously advantaged to those more favourably disposed to the party. Few foresaw that this would amount to a wide reaching tax on thinking that would effect us all. Those that did raise objections were dismissed as counter revolutionaries. Great profits may have been made by a new class of BEE telecoms Billionaires, but the real cost was borne by the vast population that was and effectively still is, excluded from collective thinking.

Getting out of these toxic telecoms contracts and replacing them with a system universally accessible by all Africans is going to be challenging. We can start by ensuring that all future licences are aimed at freeing up bandwidth and driving down costs. The difficulty is getting Government to give up its revenue addiction, fed by taxing communications. Do not sell another bandwidth licence out to a private profit making entity. If we can have free public roads, we can have a free data highway. No matter how challenging, by collectively financing public IT infrastructure we can make this available to all.

This is a two headed beast. Many cannot connect at all and those that do connect pay too much to stay connected to sub standard delivery. It won't help to try to institute a two tier billing system. The socialist ideal that we can subsidise the poors' access to IT, by taxing the rich is sure to keep us down the path where thinking is hampered and competitiveness is throttled. Taxing the rich to think collectively, is just as damaging as excluding the poor from thinking collectively. If it was easy for high end developers to connect and thrive in South Africa, we would not have the brain drain that we do have.

This route will not be easy. The influence of the super profits generated by telecoms providers pervades so many sectors of our society. For any marketer, event coordinator, sports administrator, financial services provider, media owner, the first people that come to mind as sponsors or partners are the telecoms companies. It gets so bad, that when Government recently needed to co finance the ICT Indaba in Cape Town, the first people that they turn to for funding are the telecoms companies. It is like inviting Dracula to dinner, because he will bring along some meat.

Like I said, this is going to be a difficult, but cracking the telecoms demon is the only way for South Africa to be free.

Dealing with the second problem of freeing ourselves from foreign software masters should be as simple as adopting a national strategy of open source. When open source is prevalent, the software ecosystem keeps expanding with each contribution made is shared by all. Open source provides a means to build our knowledge capital and make it freely available to all citizens. This has already been done very successfully by Brazil, but this may be unattainable for South Africa. What could be so difficult about using free software?

The open source movement is sweeping the world. Companies like Google and Facebook have been built on open source software. 90% of Internet servers are driven by Linux. Yet this is a revolution completely missed by Africa. We contribute less than 2% of the world open source code. In South Africa our idea of open source is to push out a few memos recommending that our Government departments use open source software. This is a naïve hope that we will reduce IT costs. The problem is that for every advocate of open source adoption there are 10 highly intelligent, highly motivated software salesmen perverting this process. The memos get filed, and the procurement departments go for lunch with the proprietary software salesmen.

Without a culture of software development open source adoption is not possible. The Buddha is always killed on the side of the road. While we are trapped as users, it is always a lot simpler for a us to purchase a proprietary service that comes prepackaged with sales support and software maintenance. Adopting open source is much more difficult. As it takes a commitment to get involved. There are no salesmen in an open source project.

Our inability to take the short run, upfront “hit” of having to work to implement open source is what leads us to take the easy route, but the route which leads to a lifetime of subservience to our colonial suppliers. To a developer the benefits of open source are obvious. Every installation leads to improvements and we are able to cobble these improvements together to create new knowledge opportunities. When we use open source to solve our own software problems we are inadvertently solving the countries problems. This is because all successes are shared. The collective gains lead us to an interconnected knowledge economy.

Why is this not obvious? In a Nation of Installers, software development is not our problem. Development is perceived as an unnecessary annoyance that hinders us “getting our job done”. We want a world of instant gratification. We can get that by renting a proprietary solution, but this solution builds an offshore development job and keeps us forever ignorant.

South Africa is not alone in this thinking, but our situation is severely aggravated by the racist thinking that plagues our policy makers. A simple fact obvious to any developer in South Africa is that the industry is dominated by white males. Go to any development conference or any internet user group and it is sure to be crowded with white men. It is not that women or black people are stopped at the door, entrance is usually free, it is just a fact that they choose not to attend. This would not be an issue except that in a society hell bent on transforming the economy on racial lines, this is not going to lead to open source nirvana. We get the ironic situation where the tender process is legislated to favour a black salesman selling a foreign software system over a white developer proposing a local development solution.

Open source does not obviously offer a trade - “Buy our software and we will do this for you.” As the open source industry we find it strange that users want us to invest in getting them to use our software. Users on the other hand find the proprietary vendors a lot easier to talk to. It is very difficult to hear the merits of the open source proposition, when proprietary vendors are blasting out media messages and sending in an army of salesmen. Charming proprietary vendors will shower you with gifts and presentations long before you end up paying and paying - forever.

Once you adopt a culture of development, this cycle can be broken. Open source vendors are happy to collaborate with you because you contribute to the collective and users don't just expect a handout. Government is the biggest IT user, it can be the biggest beneficiary of open source. To achieve this takes long run thinking. We need a policy that screams against our current short term objectives.

Our policy must legislate a blanket ban on the use of proprietary formats in Government Departments and stick to it. If we don't have it, develop it, no matter what the short term cost. The rub is that we will have to create interventions that in the short term benefit white males. This won't last long, open source development will engulf all and will have benefits in multiples in the long run for all South Africans. This collaboration will spread quickly beyond the borders of South Africa. Our experience with the TurboCASH Project started in South Africa, but spread rapidly to 25 languages and 80 countries. Our International software contributors turn from being masters to partners.

Solve these two ICT problems and South Africa can yet be free.

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