South Africa Journal: Failure to Connect

There are many immediate, practical differences about South Africa that strike an American visitor. Driving on the left is one: the hard part is not so much staying on your side of the road as adjusting to the physical dimensions of a car whose gear shift and rear-view mirror are on the “wrong” side. Another difference that takes some getting used to is the dismally slow Internet connection speed, which is among the slowest in the world.

There are a few reasons for the lag. One is that Telkom, the former state telecommunications monopoly, has been reluctant to yield its market dominance. Like every monopoly, it has maximized profits by providing less of what the market actually wants, i.e. bandwidth. There has been some privatization, but the ruling party has dragged its feet, finding that state-controlled companies are particularly useful for placing patronage jobs.

The telecommunications sector in South Africa has also been held back by the demands of black economic empowerment policies (BEE), which require large companies to devote significant ownership stakes to members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. In practice, that tends to mean members of the ruling African National Congress. Foreign investors in IT, as in other sectors, are reluctant to subject themselves to BEE.

The irony, of course, is that the best way to empower the truly disadvantaged in South Africa is to grow the (sluggish) economy, and to connect them to information and opportunities worldwide. Almost anything that slows the advancement of the telecommunications sector adds present-day frustration to the injuries of the past. There are many here who recognize that fact, and are devoted to improving the country’s IT infrastructure.

As in many things, it is the opposition Democratic Alliance that has taken the lead in improving connections in the Western Cape province and in the municipalities it controls. Yet broadband penetration in South Africa remains low, even though the advent of smartphones has radically lowered the barriers to entry for the poor. The frustrations of a visitor trying to check e-mail are nothing compared to the opportunities they are missing.