Nelson Mandela: Telecommunications in rich and poor countries

Lueko Willms Lueko.Willms at
Wed Jul 9 10:19:20 MDT 2003

intro by Lüko Willms: 

  The question on Internet access in Cuba actually raises the huge
gap in telecommunications and access to the "Information Super
Highway" from countries in the socalled Third World, the former
colonies of the rich countries in Europe and North America, plus
Japan, Australia and New Zealand. 

  The problem lies not in malicious censorship by the governments of
the oppressed and exploited countries of the Third World, but in
their poverty which is exacerbated by the capital drain from "South"
to "North" by the instrument of the foreign debt, where todays
interest payments are, IMHO, higher than the original capital sum
lent out. It amounts just to plunder. 

  The 1996-1997 annual report of the "Department of Communications"
of the government of the Republic of South Africa noted in the
section on the preparations for the "Africa Telecommunications" event
to be held in Johannesburg in 1998, that "One in 8 people on the
planet live in Africa, yet they have access to only one in fifty of
the world's telephone lines." 

   In the following I present the opening speech of then South
African president Nelson Mandela at the "Telecommunications 1995"
event in Geneva, the seat of the ITU (International
Telecommunications Union). 

Lüko Willms 

---- quote -----------------

Dr Pekka Tarjanne, Secretary-General of the ITU; Your Excellency,
President Kaspar Villiger of the Swiss Federation; Honorable
Ministers; Members of the Diplomatic Corps; Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen,

South Africa is deeply hounoured by the invitation to take part in
this opening ceremony of TELECOM 95, the 7th World Telecommunications
Conference and Exhibition.

Your seventh FORUM is the very first in which South Africa is
participating as a full member of the International Telecommunication
Union. This is testament to the steadfast support which our struggle
for freedom received from the ITU. On behalf of the people of South
Africa, we thank you for your solidarity, and express our joy at
being so warmly accepted as a full and equal partner in the
all-important work of telecommunications.

We would also like to express our gratitude at being given this
unique opportunity to present our views at TELECOM 95. The keen
appreciation we feel is heightened by the fact this is a special
moment in the world's potential for transition to a truly democratic
information age.

The ITU is a body of crucial importance for South Africa and indeed
the entire African continent. We need a vast expansion of our
communication and information network. The ITU, as the principal
driving force behind international policy; technological development;
co-operation; and skills transfer is an indispensable agent in this

It therefore gives me great pleasure to announce that, following
discussions between officials of the ITU and the South African
government, we have formally invited the Union to hold its next
Africa region TELECOM Exhibition and FORUM in 1998 in South Africa.
We would be happy and proud to host this prestigious event, and look
forward to further close co-operation with the Secretary General and
the TELECOM Secretariat to make it a memorable occasion for the
benefit of the Union and its members.

Ladies and gentlemen,

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

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 the ways of communicating and obtaining access to

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. The pace at which the price of communications and
information systems has fallen has also undermined the previously
rigid link between a nation's wealth and its information richness.
There is an unprecedented window of opportunity.

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.

Ladies and gentlemen,

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 superhighway.

And just as every nation needs co-operation between its various
sectors to find the country's best way of accessing and utilizing the
information highways, 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 organizations and this might well be a role for the ITU

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

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 jeopardizing local services
unable 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 and strategic skills
transfers and expansion of networks to the Southern partners. They
will help move us all away from dependency and one-way relationships.

Another major problem faced by governments is how to create
incentives for telecommunications operators to supply unprofitable
services which the state is committed to supporting - for example to
rural areas or poor urban areas. Certain international developments
are creating new difficulties for many developing countries. In
particular, while moves towards liberalization are reducing the cost
of international calls, they also force national operators to reduce
tariffs in order to compete, thereby diverting funds from their less
economic areas.

The effects on national services of international accounting rates
ought, therefore, to be taken into account in the negotiation of
these rates and the way that revenues are shared. Traditionally,
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.

Ladies and gentlemen,

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 the developing countries in building
a global information society:

1. We should strive towards global universal service in telephony and
global universal access to the information super-highway;

2. The expansion of the global information infrastructure should be
based on partnership and rules of fair competition and regulation, at
both national and international level;

3. The information revolution should be geared towards enhancing
global citizenship and global economic prosperity;

4. A diversity of paths towards the achievements of national
information societies should be respected;

5. The evolution of policy for the development of an equitable global
information society should be co-ordinated internationally to ensure
the sharing of information and resources;

6. The education of young people with regards to the skills needed
for living in an information society should be prioritized.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In concluding I would wish to emphasize 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
global information society. And we must create the best conditions
for their participation.

I thank you. 

------------- unquote --------

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