Statement of Deputy President Thabo
Mbeki at the Africa Telecom '98 Forum, Johannesburg,
May 04, 1998
First of all, I would like to join our President, Nelson
Mandela in welcoming you all to our country and wishing
Africa Telecom '98, the success it deserves.
I would also like to express our profound appreciation
of the enormous work put in by the ITU and the African
Telecommunications Ministers to ensure that this important
event becomes the success that it is.
I must take this opportunity publicly to apologize
to the African Heads of State and Government, who are
participating in this session for the delay in communicating
the request to them to address the conference and thank
them most sincerely for the speed with which they responded
once the request was communicated to them.
This, in itself, is sufficient to demonstrate the commonality
of the view among the most senior leaders of our continent
of the critical importance of telecommunications and
this conference, in particular.
I trust that all the participants at this gathering,
important to the future of Africa, will have the opportunity
to be exposed to some other parts of our country other
than this meeting place, including the products of our
wineries for those who are not prohibited to drink or
do not drink wine.
You have the perfect right and will have the duty to
contest the foolish things I will say this afternoon
on behalf of our government.
But I trust that on this we can agree, that it is not
a terribly foolish idea for us to suggest that you cannot
come to South Africa and make no effort to sample our
This I can promise you that if you do not, your grandchildren
will ask you - when you were there, did you not try
Some of the wines you will taste come from one of the
oldest wine estates in this country - Vergelegen.
One of our playwrights, Dirk Opperman, has written
a play in one of our indigenous languages, Afrikaans,
named after this centuries old wine farm. Somewhere
in its text, the following lines occur:
"Maak die honde los. Daar's goedes in the bos."
My own rendition of these lines in English, with apologies
to the poets, would be:
"Let the dogs off the leash, there are things in
The drama of contrast conveyed by this imagery is clear.
On the one hand we have the well ordered wine farm,
Vergelegen, whose bottled success, measured by the response
of delicate and educated palates, depends on ensuring
that the vineyards and wine cellars are nursed and nurtured
with the greatest and equivalent delicate and educated
But this orderly world of sophisticated agricultural
and culture is surrounded by a barbaric and threatening
bush of African flora and fauna, with the black hordes
as part of that fauna, against which, inter alia, ferocious
dogs must be kept on the leash, until such time as necessity
demands that they must be let loose, to repulse the
inevitable advance of the primitive things of the African
Thus, according to this paradigm, progress must necessarily
have another face.
Progress has regress as its necessary corollary. The
liberation of the individual carries with it the necessity
to prepare for the repression of the individual. The
door of knowledge must both be opened to the Adam of
the Garden of Eden. But so must he be punished for daring
to access that knowledge.
The Janus Face, the Faustian dilemma, Oscar Wilde's,
"Picture of Dorian Gray", the necessary coexistance
of good and evil in all our cultures, according to which
each blessing is its own curse - let the dogs off the
leash, there are things in the African bush! - are we
not met here to challenge all this troubled imagery,
much of which describes our real world!
I believe we have gathered here this week to make a
statement to ourselves and the world that we intent
to achieve progress and progress.
We are here to affirm a commitment to the creation
of the circumstance in which none will be excluded from
the forward advance that we all define as progress.
Consequently, together we wish to make the point that
there will be no need to breed and keep ferocious dogs,
to hold at bay those who are denied access to what a
significant part of humanity accepts as a good and necessary
part of the ordinary sustenance of the human condition.
Surely, this must mean that each one of us, in our
own little acre of the world and within the various
fields of our competence, must take and implement the
necessary and correct decisions with regard to the challenges
thrown up by the emerging information society, which
is helping to define the nature of modern human existence.
Hopefully, our actions will obviate the needs to maintain
a pride of guard dogs against those in the world, including
our African selves, who might be forced to advance against
a human advance which for us might represent disempowerment,
marginalisation and regression.
As the present political leadership of the peoples
of Africa, what must we address and, in addressing that
agenda, what must we say!
I believe that the first statement we must make is
that as Africans we proceed from the position that information
By this I mean that as governments we must make the
sovereign determination that the establishment of the
Information Society on our continent is a necessary
for the success we wish to achieve in effecting the
That Renaissance has to be about democracy, peace and
stability throughout our continent. It has to be about
economic regeneration so that we pull ourselves out
of the category "the underdeveloped" permanently.
It has to be about vastly improving the quality of
life of all our citizens. This, of course, relates to
all elements of human activity, including jobs, education
It also has to be about ensuring that our continent
plays its due role in the ordering of world affairs
to ensure that the interests of its citizens are promoted
and protects in today's world of the globalization of
economies, technology, information and culture. Telecommunications
and the Information Society are central to the achievement
of all these goals.
I have heard the point argued in this country - of
what use is a telephone to a peasant who has no access
to basic education and health facilities!
Therefore, so the argument goes - first things first!
But I believe that as government we must insist on
the point that precisely to meet the needs of this poor
peasant faster and at affordable cost, we need to establish
a modern telecommunications infrastructure.
Take the graphic example of the rural district hospital
located at considerable distances from any referral
hospital where the medical specialists are located.
Precisely because we speak of an underdeveloped society,
this rural hospital has one ambulance at its disposal.
The road along which it travels to reach the referral
hospital is a rugged dirt road which makes it impossible
actually to transport a person who is very ill and needs
to be kept under stable conditions.
Part of the answer to this problem is tele-medicine.
Thus we would link our rural hospital to the specialists
in the city and thus bring the best health care to the
At the same time, we would, of course be trying to
stretch the limited public resources to attend to the
improvement of the rural roads, increasing the number
of ambulances available to the rural hospital and increasing
the quality of medical personnel working at the district
Of course, we could present a similar argument about
We must therefore agree with the argument which says,
first things first - and include among the first, the
provision of a modern telecommunications infrastructure.
Beyond this, I believe that we should also be of one
mind in deciding that what we seek to achieve as we
expand this infrastructure is universal access.
The point has been made that Africa is the world's
biggest potential telecommunications market. Clearly,
the level of demand has outstripped the supply possibilities.
This is reflected by the fact that international traffic
per subscriber in sub-Saharan Africa is the highest
of any region in the world. It has also been reported
that the average level of pre-tax profitability of public
telecommunications operators is the highest of any region
of the world while the average level of telecommunications
revenue per inhabitant is less that any other region
of the world.
Thus, we are faced with a combination of factors which
demand a response. First, there is the undeniable and
critical importance of modern telecommunications with
regard to the challenge of socio-economic development.
Second, demand on the continent for access to telecommunications
services has outstripped the existing physical capacity.
Third, considerable investment is required to respond
to these two factors.
And fourth, our government and states, historically
the monopoly providers of telecommunications infrastructure
and services, are not able themselves to generate the
resources necessary to meet the telecommunications challenge
and thus the imperative of building the information
Clearly, we have to follow the rest of the world and
open up this sector to private sector participation.
I believe that by and large this matter is no longer
in dispute in the majority of our countries.
Thus various initiatives have been taken, including
the privatization of Public Telecommunications Operators
and the acquisition of strategic equity partners who
bring them capital, modern technology and modern management,
as has happened in our own case.
Inevitably therefore we have to go along the route of
the liberalization of the telecommunications sector
and the introduction of competition, within the context
of the overall national development goals.
What all this means is that we must therefore have
clear, consistent and stable telecommunications policies
so that all players, including both the private sector
and public sector investors, are certain of the nature
of the market in which they must participate.
I am certain that this Conference will assist greatly
with regard to this process of elaborating policy both
in individual countries and in the context of the continent
The point has also been made and is universally agreed
that market forces on their own will not satisfy all
policy objectives and these policies may be impossible
to achieve in a purely competitive and unregulated market.
A regulatory system therefore becomes necessary and
inevitable among other things to create a stable and
transparent environment to attract investment, to facilitate
the access of service providers to the network, within
a context that promotes fair competition and to ensure
that the least advantaged regions of the country, such
as the rural areas, are not left out of the process
All of what we have said represents a matter of common
cause among all of us present here.
However, the importance of saying it lies in the fact
that our continent's political leadership has an obligation
to communicate a clear message that its commitment to
the African Renaissance is also informed by practical
policies which make it possible for the continent to
enter into partnership with other continents and for
the public sector to enter into a partnership with the
Necessarily that partnership would also address such
critically important questions as human resources development
relevant to this sector as well as the creation and
expansion of manufacturing capacity on the continent
as part of the process of modernization of our economies
in the context of global economic activity.
Among ourselves as Africans we also have to focus on
such matters as establishing a regional market for telecommunication
equipment and services and common procurement arrangements.
Equally important is the issue of content, the provision
of the material that will be carried and conveyed through
multimedia infrastructure towards whose establishment
we all aim.
As African governments we consider this an extremely
important conference which enables us to communicate
directly with the private sector to say that we are
ready to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership
with yourselves which, among other things, would help
to increase the flows of foreign direct investment into
our continent and also enhance the attractiveness of
the continent to investment flows into other sectors
of the economy.
We are convinced that the telecommunications sector
can and must stand at the cutting edge of this exciting
and historic process of the rebirth of Africa which
has been designated the African Renaissance.
As part of that process, I trust that we will agree
to go ahead and move towards the implementation of the
various projects that were identified during the course
of the preparation for the conference as well as reflect
on the question whether we do not need to institute
an annual consultative process, to take place on the
African continent, to deliberate on progress achieved
and problems experienced and to identify new opportunities
in meeting the challenge of building an African Information