Statement of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki at the Africa Telecom '98 Forum, Johannesburg, May 04, 1998

Distinguished participants:

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 wines.

This I can promise you that if you do not, your grandchildren will ask you - when you were there, did you not try their wines!

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 bush."
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 care.

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 bush.

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 leads!

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 African Renaissance.

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 and health.

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 poor peasant.

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 hospital.

Of course, we could present a similar argument about distance education.

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 society.

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 generally.

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 of development.

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 private sector.

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 Society.

Thank you.

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