SANGONeT/SANGOCO Press Release, 17 September 2004
South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies in the world despite the introduction of democracy in 1994. If anything, the poverty situation has worsened. A government audit of how far it has lived up to its responsibility to its citizens and redressed apartheid’s injustices, concludes that “two economies persist in one country”. In one economy, people have access to information and the formal economy. In the other, informal economics prevail which do not contribute to the GDP. The poor do not have access to information and are increasingly marginalized and isolated. In South Africa and globally, the digital divide is increasing.
The introduction of new technologies continues to benefit only a section of the population, while the majority still do not have sufficient access to crucial government information and services. This lack of access to crucial information and services is further disadvantaging the poor, particularly women. There is sufficient research demonstrating that societies that dismiss the potential of ICTs risk “stagnation in their Development Index.”
The Southern African NGO Network (SANGONeT) and the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) hosted a meeting for civil society organisations on 9 September 2004 in Parktown to discuss the Second National Operator (SNO) and ICT BEE Empowerment Charter.
Organisations represented at the meeting included SANGONeT, SANGOCO, FXI (Freedom of Expression Institute), Creative Commons, Aba Imfundo Foundation, TASA (Telecentre Association of South Africa) and MISA (Media Institute of Southern Africa).
Edmund Baloy, Manager of Legal Services at the Department of Communications, and Dr Angus Hay, Chief Technology Officer of Transtel, made presentations on the SNO.
Specific issues of concern raised and discussed:
- Civil society organisations are concerned about the limited scope and conception of the principles of redress and transformation in the telecommunications sector. The Department of Communications has failed civil society by not capacitating ICASA and the Universal Service Agency (USA) sufficiently to ensure that the telecommunications industry fulfils its Universal Service Mandates. This has exasperated the divide between the information haves and the information have-nots, and has resulted in the regression of communities who do not have access to basic telecommunication services.
- The participation of civil society organisations in development and ICT issues is not for self-interest of the organisations involved, but a principled representation of the poor and marginalised. Our own history in South Africa demonstrates that genuine participation is a fundamental necessity for social delivery and shaping delivery plans.
- Fundamental to the challenges of the digital divide is the challenge of education for all. Education is a fundamental human right. It is the key to sustainable development, peace and stability within and among countries, and thus an indispensable means for effective participation in the societies and economies of the twenty-first century. Achieving EFA (Education for All) goals should be postponed no longer. The basic learning needs of all can and must be met as a matter of urgency. Strategy ten of the Dakar EFA affirms the need to ‘harness new information and communication technologies to help achieve EFA goals’. Central to this is providing access to computers and the Internet in schools. The tragedy is that even when computers are available in schools, access to the Internet is denied because of the high cost of connectivity in South Africa.
- Community ICT initiatives, such as telecentres and community radio stations, are likewise isolated as they have no or limited Internet connectivity due to high prices. These initiatives have the ability to distribute health, education and social education information to a wide, otherwise inaccessible audience. However, with no fixed line connectivity, they are cut off from crucial information streams.
- The public health system is failing to deliver to many of the marginalised in South Africa. For public hospitals, free Internet connectivity can widen the reach of each hospital and take staff into inaccessible regions. Telemedicine will be facilitated and administration costs reduced. Given the lack of resources in many public hospitals, money spent on telephone calls can be better spent on improving staff capacity and working conditions.
Specific issues related to the SNO:
- As civil society, we are concerned that the SNO will not solve the long-outstanding problems associated with telecommunications in South Africa. Telkom has set a precedent in pricing and anti-poor behaviour, which we are concerned that the SNO would adopt too. ICASA and the USA have not been effective in ensuring that Telkom meets its universal service mandates, and we question whether they will be with the SNO. Telkom and the SNO have had no economic incentive thus far to provide lines and services to under-serviced areas, and we suggest that a monetary incentive be instituted. We are also concerned with the effectiveness and partiality of ICASA and the USA, and this should be investigated.
- Furthermore, with regard to the announcement by the Minister of Communications relating to the introduction of an e-rate for schools in 2005, we call for this benefit also to be extended to a 100% discount to the following institutions:
- Public hospitals
- Police and correctional services
- Public schools and public further education training institutions.
- This relates to all local landline calls and calls to an Internet service provider and any connection or similar fees or charges levied by an Internet service provider for accessing the Internet or transmitting and receiving any signals via the internet or for such access and transmission and reception.
In addition, we call on the Department of Communication to extend this incentive to SMMEs and cooperatives located in the rural and under-serviced areas. We feel that the extension of the scope and discount of the e-rate will raise the levels of service delivery in the country. With the building of e-governance structures, public institutions will be capacitated to be effective in their service delivery. The ‘free-rate’ has the potential to break the isolation of public institutions. The concession to incentivise SMMEs and cooperatives which are providing services which government is not able to provide, would contribute to the sustainability of these initiatives.