South Africa is a rich and diverse country. The bush. Gold mining. Cape Town. But it’s a country that’s been brutally managed on behalf of a very small minority for the past 40 years. And that has screwed up its entire infrastructure. Forty percent of the country’s able-bodied population is unemployed. More than 70% of its adult population is illiterate or semiliterate. In a country of 40 million people, there are only 3 million telephones-old ones at that, as I can attest from personal experience-and 2.5 million televisions.
But South Africa now has something golden: hope. And that hope is centered on Nelson Mandela and his new government. So I come back to the original question: If you were Mandela, what would you think about technology in society?
You and I know that technology could help South Africans make the leap from where they are now-somewhere between the First and Second Wave-solidly into the Third Wave and a leadership position in Africa and possibly the world.
Technology, for example, could help South Africa build a communications infrastructure where none has existed. On June 1, the country switched on its cellular phone system for the first time. The government did a good job: it designed a competitive system based on the same standard as European mobile phones, meaning that the network was able to be built very quickly and the cost of the phones will fall very rapidly. Because it is competitive, the cost of making calls is substantially lower for the cellular system than for the monopoly wired system, which is managed by a state bureaucracy called Telkom.
But the people who are living in and running South Africa have little experience with technology or its potential benefits, and Mandela’s new government is only beginning to develop its policies and philosophy in this area. It’s hard enough for those of us in advanced, industrialized countries like the United States to figure out how to use it. But imagine trying to justify the cost of a digital highway system when you live in a country that hasn’t yet built an extensive concrete highway system.
Because of the inequities of the past, it appears South Africans want a managed economy that ensures that the wealth and resources of the country are redistributed to the population that has been disenfranchised by the old system.
But time has demonstrated-in the differences between how technology has been developed and used by the United States compared to Europe or Japan-that a managed system is anathema to the rapid spread of technology.
South Africa could become the social and economic beacon for the rest of the African continent. But it needs to take some drastic steps-deregulating its telephone business, defining clear rules for competition, providing incentives to invest in technology and education-to become that beacon and to surf the Third Wave.
I left hoping that Nelson Mandela does see the value of technology in enfranchising the entire population.