Computing in South Africa; an End to Apartness?

Computing in South Africa; an End to Apartness?

Communications of the ACM 37(2), February 1994, pp. 21-25
International Perspectives

Sy Goodman
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
or or fax: 602 621-2433

The information technologies (IT) community in South Africa is the most advanced on the continent. It is embedded in, and contributes to, a "first-world" national infrastructure of tertiary education, telecommunications, transportation, and financial and service institutions. World-class indigenous computing capabilities exist in several areas such as banking, the military, and mining.

However, the South African first world economy, and its embedded IT community, only serves about 2~% of the nearly 40 million people in the country and suffers both global and regional isolation. This separation is not only a consequence of geography, but is also very much a result of political-economic problems caused by government-mandated racial apartheid (the Afrikaans term meaning "apartness" or "separate development") policies. With the demise of apartheid, and the impending shifts in power and control, the IT community will have to face the problems of survival and relevance in the context of what essentially amounts to having to quickly adapt to the needs of a much larger and more complex country.

Many other countries face the problem of trying to expand the coverage of the advanced sectors of their economies to include more of their "left-out" populations, which are often growing at rates of 2.5% to 4% per year (2.5% for South African blacks). But no other African country at this time has a comparably well developed infrastructure to build upon, nor the pressures and hopes tied to its situation. Arguably the only country in subequatorial Africa with near-term potential for development and modernization on a large scale, South Africa's prosperity is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for sustained economic and technological progress elsewhere in the region.

Rejoining the Global community

With some exceptions (e.g., Botswana), most of Africa officially treated South Africa as a pariah for its apartheid policies. This has been reinforced with political, economic, and technological sanctions by the UN, other international bodies, and developed countries, especially the U.S. These controls were complemented by pressures from foreign academic and business communities (e.g., activists and stockholders forced several multinationals to withdraw from South Africa). At least 150 American state and local governments imposed unilateral sanctions. Some sanctions were explicitly targeted against computers and telecommunications.

Sanctions seem to have been effective in denying certain major items, such as supercomputers. Most other IT hardware and software were brought into the country without great difficulty, often through dummy companies set up in Britain or from the Far East, where hardly anyone seemed to care about racial problems in South Africa. The direct effects on the general compute-rusing community were to increase the cost and time of acquisition and maintenance, to force early purchases in anticipation of increased sanctions, and to make people get along with less or squeeze more out of what they had. The withdrawal of IT companies was such that no U.S. firms had an official presence in the country. Several multinational IT corporations withdrew by essentially selling off their subsidiaries as South African-owned de facto distributorships which then no longer had to worry about conforming to U.S.-dictated affirmative action policies. The acquisition of these distributorships ended up consolidating IT industry power in the hands of a few white conglomerates.

The net effect on those targeted with the strictest sanctions, the police and military-industrial users, was very limited. Police use of foreign computer products is rumored to have been extensive. Military electronics systems and nuclear weapons were built using imported equipment (the government claims to have recently dismantled its nuclear weapons).

Government concerns with security and self-sufficiency led to protectionism and meddling, damaging the advanced sectors of an economy already seriously weakened by excessive government and chance events (e.g., multiple racially based bureaucracies, severe drought, drops in world gold prices). This defensive mentality contributed further to South Africa's global isolation.

Perhaps the main effect of the sanctions on the IT community was to isolate its members from the extent of international contact that has become common elsewhere. This happened at a personal level as much as at institutional levels. The experience was traumatic for many who had been and wanted to be part of a larger international community, producing a sometimes bitter reaction.

With the end of apartheid, it should be relatively easy to undo global "apartness." In spite of a severe recession and great uncertainties about the future of the country, South Africa's business and academic sectors are still the most solvent on the continent. Sanctions are being relaxedeven Cray has been permitted to sell a larger computer for weather-related researchand many computer and telecommunications companies are establishing some presence. Unfortunately, given the perceptions and realities of social unrest among the many black, white and brown "tribes" in the country, most foreign companies are doing little more than setting up marketing facilities and seem prepared to pull up their shallow stakes on short notice.

The current government is working to normalize business conditions. For example, in late 1992 it passed a strong Copyright Amendment Act protecting the intellectual property rights of software. Many institutional users have gone legitimate, (e.g., the Atomic Energy Corporation spent about a million dollars to make the transition to legal software licenses). U.S. software companies are energetically pursuing converts and new opportunities. Unfortunately, there has been less action on other IT related public policy issues, such as privacy.

Similar to the military-industrial sectors in the U.S., the former USSR, and elsewhere, the sizable and technologically sophisticated sector in South Africa will have to convert much of its capability to civilian purposes or suffer in a traumatic downsizing. Armscor, the major defense parastatal, has spun off Denel in an effort to set up a competitive company in the IT sector.

South Africa now has a solid connection to the Internet, mainly through the efforts of Mike Lawrie of Rhodes University in Grahamstown ( and Vic Shaw of the NSF-like Foundation for Research Development (FRD) in Pretoria ( Connection to the Internet provides a gateway for the FRD-sponsored Uninet, the national academic and research network. South Africans are the most active academic network users in Africa, and most seem anxious to strengthen relations with their counterparts elsewhere (about 500MB per day are exchanged with the U.S. alone).

Regional Relations

The post-colonial decades have not been kind to subequatorial Africa, with a litany of grief including chronic instability, corruption, civil war, economic decline, and AIDS. With the end of the Cold War, the rebirth of Eastern Europe, and recessions at home, the major countries of the northern hemisphere have new claims on their purses and diminishing interest in the countries of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC) (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe).

South Africa is the only country with the potential to help drive regional economic progress to any significant extent. This is particularly true for the IT sector, where South African capabilities far exceed those of all the SADCC countries combined.

South African businesses can be expected to have stronger and longer- term interests in the SADCC region than do those from the North Atlantic countries or Asia. They are more likely to be willing to do more than just "dump boxes," and are better positioned to work out nonhard currency deals and to establish and maintain business relationships. This is already the case in many instances. South African companies are often the main suppliers of hardware and software through local distributors or subsidiaries of South African or multinational firms. South Africa is the locus of most of the engineering, consulting, and management populations in the region, and many such people have done work in neighboring countries in recent years.

The South African academic and research community has also been building bridges. Mike Lawrie has helped colleagues in most of the SADCC countries to establish inexpensive UUCP network links to Uninet and the Internet gateway at Rhodes, in effect superimposing a UUCP star topology to Uninet in the form of spokes to most of the neighboring countries. Recent additions include Swaziland and Mozambique.

With the most extensive tertiary education system in the region, South African universities and technikons (vocational colleges) have been providing training for managers and technical people from neighboring countries. The potential for further training and institutional collaboration exists on a scale and at a cost that would be unlikely via arrangements with Europe and North America.

Regional computing conferences, notably the annual CISNA (Computing in Southern Africa) meetings, are being held with some regularity (Malawi in 1991, Namibia in 1992, Botswana in 1993, Cape Town has been chosen for 1994). Each meeting has seen extensive South African participation (e.g., in the number of delivered papers). Despite some political pressures, South Africans have been active in activities of the International Federation for Information Processing.

Namibia is a special case. The former South West Africa has a difficult history of its own that includes the imposition of an apartheid system under South African protectorate. It became independent in March 1990 after a prolonged civil war and conflict along its Angolan border.

But the past legacy was not all bad with regard to IT. The end of the protectorate left Namibia with one of the best per capita infrastructures in sub-Saharan Africa, with good transportation, telecommunications, electrical power, and water systems. It has a substantial "first world" economic sector with a fairly modern and stable computer-using community, especially around Windhoek, with much of the hardware and applications provided in some fashion by South African firms. Much of Namibia's long distance telecommunications traffic is to or switched through South Africa, and it enjoys special rates (as do all of South Africa's immediate neighbors). Under the current multiracial government, which took power via a remarkably civil and peaceful transition, efforts are being made to expand telephony to rural tribal areas and to establish a leased line Internet 'I'CP/IP connection to the University of Namibia in 1994, which would make it the first SADCC nation so linked. Namibian students have special access to the South African tertiary education system.

An End to Apartheid is Not Enough

The most difficult form of "apartness that needs to be addressed by the South African computing community is the legacy of apartheid at home. This community has pursued its commercial, technological and academic interests in more-or-less muted coexistence with the "separate development" regime. The inevitable ethnic result is that the great majority of computing professionals are white. The largest non-white component is of Asian origin, particularly Indian, who have something of a niche in the management of computing operations. To some extent a similar niche is held by people of mixed race in the Western Cape. Black Africans, comprising about 80% of the population, have been excluded not only by apartheid, but also by educational, cultural, and economic circumstances that affect computing demographics in most of Africa. [6]

"In the decades of 'the struggle,' as the campaign against apartheid was known, blacks' main aim was to tear down white institutions; now they must learn to build new ones. During the struggle it was enough to demand economic sanctions; now black politicians have to think about get- ting the economy off the ground. It used to be easy to denounce black poverty; now black politicians will share responsibility for relieving it. [Now] black South Africans have to replace the attitudes of struggle with something more constructive." [3]

This is the essence of the social and policy environment that is putting pressure on the South African IT sector, pressure that is likely to intensify after the scheduled elections in April 1994. A new black- dominated government must deliver perceptible economic improvement to its primary constituency, the "left outs" of the formal economic sector. This will have to take the form of jobs and improved living conditions. The essence of the problem for the IT community is threefold: to survive and grow technologically and commercially; to increase the number of black and colored people in its ranks; and to have its output perceived as being of value to a much larger fraction of the population than is now the case. The urgency of the situation has prompted some progress towards greater inclusion. Much of this has taken place in the English- speaking formerly white universities and the technikons. Nonwhite enrollments at major universities like Cape Town, Natal, Rhodes, and Witwatersrand have grown to more than 25% in recent years. There has not been comparable growth at the Afrikaans-speaking universities. Nor has there been comparable growth in the student populations specifically in computer science, information systems, or engineering. These departments are seeking nonwhite students, but find relatively few. Black students in particular are handicapped by poor secondary education in mathematics and science (among other problems, first-rate math and science teachers are almost nonexistent in the township and rural schools) and living environments that do not promote interest in technical careers. Black students who complete the normal three-year BSc degree rarely go on to a fourth (so-called "honors") year or graduate education. They are under pressure to become breadwinners for their extended families and are often snapped up for (sometimes token) employment by industry. Efforts by university departments to develop precollege, retraining, and continuing education programs in computing have had mixed results. However, there are successful infusions of computing at nonwhite secondary schools, such as the CSSA-sponsored (Computer Society of South Africa) clubs and classes at the Trafalgar and Crestway schools in the Cape Town area, but these reach a very small fraction of the nation's students.

Industry has made some effort to increase the number of nonwhite Africans in its computing ranks. Progress has been slow. Several IT companies have high-profile training programsmostly foreign companies like IBM and Lotus emphasizing their commitment to affirmative action (a few U.S. companies had affirmative action programs prior to their sanctions-promoted departures)or have small apprenticeship programs.

There are examples of businesses bringing IT to the black population. One is the rural mobile ATM developed by the First National Bank and MicroData. Checks used to be sent to distribution centers in the country-side, and recipients often had to walk or bicycle long distances to get them. Many recipients were so inexperienced that they were often shortchanged when they cashed their checks and other forms of fraud were common. First National Bank now uses mobile ATMs with a computerized fingerprint checking feature that provides the correct amounts of money directly to recipients, brings the money closer to their homes, and has greatly reduced fraud (but not entirelythere are stories of crooks using the severed fingers of dead people). Datakor, developer of the fingerprinting technology, is trying to market its use in rural Mexico.

But such examples are rare, as are black computing enterprises. More typical are statistics like those for telephones: nearly 80 times the number of phones per capita for whites than for blacks [5]. Black-owned computing companies, like RISC Solutions, a Johannesburg-based regional distributor for Sun Microsystems [~], are few in number and small in size.

Although recent progress falls short of what will be needed in the long term, an important necessary condition is being established for achieving much more. In the past, with a few exceptions, the members of the IT community had little input into the government arena. Now, a more open atmosphere for discussion exists, and the spectrum of participation has been widened considerably to include such people and organizations as Peter Davies, president of the CSSA (more generally, South Africa has over a dozen IT-related professional societies); Andile Ngcaba, head of the ANC Information Systems Department and a prospective ministerial candidate; and Lyndall Shope-Mafole, head of the recently formed Center for the Development of Information and Telecommunications Policy (CDITP). If IT is to play a significant role in the future of the country, these players will have to work hard to get it placed on serious policy and investment agendas.

Some things are easy to do. For example, the first two issues of the CSSA-affiliated glossy publication, Information Technology Review, had prominent stories featuring blacks, IT policy issues, and affirmative action [2]. Perhaps more than any other political party, the ANC has considered policy for science and technology and made it part of their platform [ 1, 4, 5]. (During the period when it was outlawed, the ANC also used computer networks for communications between the leadership in exile and the underground members in South Africa.)

Harder decisions will involve setting detailed priorities and finding the resources to make the decisions pay off. For example, should priority be given to putting scarce capital resources into improving the computing and telecommunications environments for the most productive parts of the economy in the hope of maximizing additional income for the country? Or should those resources be invested in rural telephony, to define and promote increased economic activity among the neglected rural population? Such investment could help preserve traditional families, promote new forms of economic activity, and stem the migration from the countryside to urban areas, etc. (It might be noted that part of the logo for CDITP shows a village hut attached to a phone, a microcomputer and a satellite dish.)

These and other important questions are only beginning to get the attention they deserve. Answers will be difficult, at least partially because the players will need time to get a realistic understanding of what resources are available. The economy has been stagnant, even experiencing negative growth. Social unrest has made foreign and local investors cautious. Hitting business with nationalization, heavy additional taxes, or racial employment quotas risks destroying productive elements while doing little to improve the condition of the poor majorityAfrica is full of examples where forced redistribution has simply created new, less productive, and more corrupt elites. As has been learned in the U.S. and the former USSR, conversion of a large defense establishment is difficult and does not bring much of an economic "peace dividend."

But the problems of South Africa are not as hopeless as they are elsewhere. With some outside help and patience among its frightened and angry people, the country has the raw human, natural and infrastructural resources to do much for itself. Investments comparable to the cost of foreign military operations in Somalia might go a long way here.


1. African National Congress. Ready to Govern: An introduction to the ANC's policy Guidelines. Johannesburg, Dec. 1992.

2. Information Technology Review. I (Jun 1993); 2(Aug. 1993)

3. Mallaby, S. After Apartheid: The Future of South Africa. Times Books, N.Y., 1992.

4. Mullin, J. et al. Towards a science and technology policy for a democratic South Africa. A Report to the ANC, COSATU and DANCO. The International Development Research Centre (Canada), Dec. 1992.

5. Ngcaba, A. Process of political change in South Africa and the changing international telecommunications environment ANC Information Systems Department, Feb. 1993.

6. Odedra, M. et. al. Sub-Saharan Africa: A technological desert. (Comm A(.M 36, 2 (Feb. 1993), 25-29.

7. RISC. Solutions. Who we are. Undated advertising sheet, obtained from the company in Johannesburg, Aug. 1993.

Follow-ups and Pointers

Much of the research for this article was done in South Africa and Namibia during June, July and August 1993. Scores of people were of invaluable assistance. I would particularly like to acknowledge the help provided by Judy Bishop, Paul Booth, Lisa Cotter, Peter Davies, Tracey Dickman, Diane Goodman, Harry Hyatt, D. G. Kourie, Christine Lawrie, Mike Lawrie, Eberhard Lisse, Mike Meredith, Peter Merrick, Andrew Minnaar, Jonathan Miller, Andrew Morris, Moss Ngoasheng, Sibonelo Ngubani, Jan Roos, Pradesh Ramdeyal, Lyndall Shope-Mafole, Gay Wood, R. J. van den Heever, and Paul Zway.

The terms "first world" and "third world" are not always precisely defined, but are commonly used to refer to the advanced industrialized and less developed countries respectively. The numbering scheme prompts the questions: What is the "second world"? and is there a "fourth world"? These terms are used less frequently, but the "second world" covers the more advanced communist countries (e.g., members of the former Warsaw Pact), and the "fourth world" includes the least developed countries (e.g., Somalia).

The UUCP connection to Mozambique is with the Center Informatica, F.dwardo Mondlane University, Maputo. The two people who made it happen are Venancio Massingue ( and Americo Muchanga (americo@

Readers are encouraged to send comments, suggestions, anecdotes, insightful speculation, raw data, and submissions for guest columns on subjects relating to international aspects of IT. All correspondence should be addressed to:

------------------------------------ Seymour E. Goodman, a professor of management information systems and policy at the University of Arizona, studies international developments in computing.

--------------------------------- Copyright (c) 1994 by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright without fee is permitted provided that copies are not made or distributed for direct commercial advantage and credit to source is given.

From: (Scott Hazelhurst)
Newsgroups: soc.culture.african,za.misc
Subject: CACM Article on SA Computing
Date: 22 Feb 1994 18:04:50 -0800
Organization: Computer Science, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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