Broadband boom brings freer speech

JP Landman

Two important non-political events took place this year, events which will have a greater impact on South Africa than politics, in the long run.

The first was the licensing of an additional 16 radio stations.  This takes the total to 160 stations for the country – 39 commercial and 121 community stations.

And in January 2009, a private consortium started laying a new undersea optical cable which will connect South Africa with East and North Africa, Europe and Asia.

Referred to as Seacom, the cable is 12 times bigger than the current one which connects South Africa to the outside world.  Seacom currently offers users a 90% discount on usage, and internet bandwidth will be substantially cheaper.

Both events are the result of deregulation.  After a decade, the state monopoly over these two sectors was finally relinquished, not without an enormous struggle and grinding of teeth.

Not only economically advantageous, this move will also benefit democracy because freedom of speech not only requires a free print media, but also a free broadcasting industry.

In a previous column I wrote that freedom of speech was significantly boosted the day private television station E-TV started making money, thereby also ensuring its survival.

Since 1990 the same chain of events were set in motion with radio.  Just after 1994, six of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) most successful radio stations were privatised.  Now there are more than 160 radio stations.

Gone are the days when the only voice we could listen to on air was that of the SABC.  Once left at the mercy of this monopoly and forced to listen to the voices of the Auckland Park propaganda machine, propaganda is becoming increasingly difficult.

Certainly community stations have small audiences and are often staffed by volunteers.  Yet, like community newspapers, they fulfil an important role in shaping public opinion in certain communities.

A decisive turning point and a negative one at that was the day President Robert Mugabe nationalised Zimbabwe’s print media after he took over control in the 1980s – and this done with the help of Scandinavia.

Radio and television were already under government control at that stage (Mugabe inherited this system from Ian Smith).  All media was therefore effectively under state control.  Any surprise then at the turn of events in that country?

Freedom of opinion is a culture which needs to be shaped and formed – it does not descend as a gift from the heavens.  The greater the number of media and media communities, the greater this culture becomes.

Increasingly we find the champions of freedom of speech on the internet.  And this is where the cheaper and bigger Seacom cable comes into play.  South Africa’s internet costs continue to remain one of the highest in the world. With the new cable this state of affairs will change irreversibly.  Communication will become a commodity instead of a privilege.

Steel, roads and railways were the infrastructure of the 19th century.  Internet connectivity is the infrastructure of the 21st century.  Deregulation in South Africa gives this industry now a much needed boost.

Trust Winston Churchill to sum up the role of technology in social development in his usual succinct way, noting that if people live among each other in peace, technology will bring more benefits to them than they could ever dream of.

Technology change people’s lives by bringing about greater productivity and creating modern communities.  Cheaper broadband does this.  It also enhances freedom of speech; having 160 radio stations helps.

In the long run, these two developments will become more important than who gets elected next as leader of our country.  Therefore, let us lift our glasses to those who are laying the undersea cables and keeping our radio stations afloat.

JP Landman is a self-employed political and trend analyst. He consults to SA largest private wealth business, BoE Private Clients, and works with several SA corporates on future scenario trends. His focus areas are trends in politics, economics and social capital.

Among some of the unique research projects his consultancy has undertaken was the role of public institutions in battling corruption (quoted by the UN in a report on corruption), the interplay of demographics and economic growth, and an overview of trends around poverty alleviation in SA. Whilst working as an analyst on the JSE in the 1990s he was voted the top analyst in political trends.

He is also a popular speaker who has addressed diverse audiences locally and internationally and enjoys consistently good ratings.

He has a BA and LLB degrees from Stellenbosch (1978), studied Economics and Development Economics at Unisa (1979 and 1980) and later at Harvard (1998 and 2005), and obtained an MPhil in Future Studies (cum laude) from Stellenbosch (2003).