Nelson Mandela was a visionary leader in every sense. In 1995, as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Mandela addressed the 7th World Telecommunications Conference and Exhibition in Geneva.
It was the first year South Africa participated in the global ICT event as a full member of the ITU, post-apartheid. In his speech, Mandela said it was crucial for South Africa and the entire African continent to be part of the organisation that would drive international policy, technological development, co-operation and skills transfer.
He also invited the ITU to hold its regional conference in South Africa in 1998. Twenty years later, in the year that would have been his 100th birthday, the ITU is holding its annual global conference and exhibition in Durban this September, says David Chen, VP of Huawei Southern Africa.
During that momentous speech, Nelson Mandela was particularly focused on the message that no one should be left behind in the information revolution that was sweeping across the globe. He noted that its impact on social and economic growth would be immense and rightly predicted that for the 21st century, "the capacity to communicate will almost certainly be a key human right."
Mandela said: "Eliminating the distinction between information rich and information poor countries is also critical to eliminating economic and other inequalities and to improving the quality of life of all humanity."
But, that digital divide Mandela spoke about 33 years ago is still with us, due to challenges in accessibility and affordability, including geographic challenges of reaching small, remote communities, poverty and lack of basic knowledge and skills. A third of Africa's population does not have access to the Internet, and the majority of the unconnected live in rural areas.
To connect a rural community with 1 500 inhabitants, a telecoms operator would have to wait 10 years to recoup the cost of a single base station. Building a base station in remote areas costs more compared to deploying one in a city, due to the lack of adequate electricity and transmission networks.
The value of information and communication is felt with particular force when, as happened in South Africa for so many years, their denial is made an instrument of repression. Such measures, however, ultimately evoke inventive and innovative ways of circumventing the restrictions. For example, as prisoners on Robben Island, when we were deprived of newspapers we searched the refuse bins for the discarded sheets of newspapers which warders had used to wrap their sandwiches. We communicated with prisoners in other sections by gathering matchboxes thrown away by warders, concealing messages in false bottoms in the boxes and leaving them for other prisoners to find. We communicated with the outside world by smuggling messages in the clothing of released prisoners.
Not even the most repressive regime can stop human beings from finding ways of communicating and obtaining access to information. This applies in equal measure to the information revolution sweeping the globe. No one can roll it back. It has the potential to open communications across all geographical and cultural divides. Nevertheless, one gulf will not be easily bridged - that is the division between the information rich and the information poor. Justice and equity demand that we find ways of overcoming it. If more than half the world is denied access to the means of communication, the people of developing countries will not be fully part of the modern world. For in the 21st century, the capacity to communicate will almost certainly be a key human right. Eliminating the distinction between information rich and information poor countries is also critical to eliminating economic and other inequalities between North and South, and to improving the quality of life of all humanity. Converging developments in the fields of information and communications offer immense potential to make real progress in this direction.
But the present reality is that the technology gap between the developed and developing nations is actually widening. Most of the world has no experience of what readily accessible communications can do for society and economy. Given the fundamental impact of telecommunications on society and the immense historical imbalances, telecommunications issues must become part of general public debate on development policies. Telecommunications cannot be simply treated as one commercial sector of the economy, to be left to the forces of the free market. In South Africa, with its own severe historical imbalances between developed and disadvantaged areas, we face many of these challenging issues within our own borders. For that reason we have much to learn from the rest of the developing world. But we do also believe that the lessons of our own experience may be of value to others, and in that spirit we would like to share some of them with you. First of all, we believe that the concept of universal service should be extended to the international plane. The obligation on governments to bring services to the rural and poorer areas of their countries should, with the globalisation of telecommunications, apply to the world at large. Developed nations should understand the necessity and the democratic right of the poorer countries to gain access to the information super-highway. And just as every nation needs co-operation between its various sectors to find the country’s best way of accessing and utilising the information highway, so too is increased international co-operation necessary. Amongst other things this should give high priority to overcoming the legacy of colonial development which left many countries linked to their neighbours via Europe rather than directly across their borders. A new programme of building high capacity links between neighbouring countries is urgently needed.
At present only the best-resourced countries can keep up with new developments. A world-wide centre for monitoring change would allow all nations to do so. The scope of what is required is beyond that of existing organisations and this might well be a role for the ITU itself. If developing countries are to make effective use of the chance to join the super-highway, there is a need for a special effort to build the pool of human resources. A massive investment in education and skills transfer is essential if the South is to compete in the global communications marketplace. This too requires long term international co-operation.
Many developing countries face difficulties in raising capital for their existing operators. There is consequently pressure on governments to throw open their doors to international competition. This calls for great care, to avoid jeopardising local services having to compete with powerful international operators. Perhaps the most creative solution is the establishment of partnerships of operators in developing countries with international companies and consortia. Such mutually beneficial arrangements would bring profitable investment to the Northern partner, strategic skills transfers and each-way relationships.
Another is how to create incentives for telecommunications operators to supply unprofitable services which need supporting - for example certain international developments present new difficulties for many developing countries. In particular, where new competitors are reducing the cost of interconnect to national operators in order to compete, thereby diverting funds from their less economic areas. The effects on national accounting rates ought, therefore, to be taken into account in the negotiation of these rates and the traditional revenue from international services has been shared in a way that brought a substantial transfer of funds to developing countries. African countries in the ITU have urged that this transfer should be maintained or even increased, given their higher costs. These are some of the issues regarding the globalisation of telecommunications and the information revolution which are of concern to South Africa and many developing countries. If we cannot ensure that this global revolution creates a world-wide information society in which everyone has a stake and can play a part, then it will not have been a revolution at all. As we head towards the 21st century, the development of a global information society based on justice, freedom and democracy must be one of our highest priorities. To this end I would like to formally table for discussion at Telecom 95 a set of principles designed to enable the full participation of both the developed countries and developing countries in building a global information society.
In conclusion I would wish to emphasise the importance of young people to the information revolution. Many of us here today spent much of our lives without access to telecommunications or information services, and many of us will not live to see the flowering of the information age. But our children will. They are our greatest asset. And it is our responsibility to give them the skills and insight to build the information societies of the future. The young people of the world must be empowered to participate in the building of the information age. They must become the citizens of the global information society. And we must create the best conditions for their participation.
I thank you.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela