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OU on the BBC: Digital Planet: Learning Zone - African Renaissance

Updated Tuesday 8th May 2007

Will the future of South Africa be changed by the spread of communications technology? This Open University programme attempted to find out.

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"It's fundamental that people are able to talk to one another" says Jay Naidoo, Minister for Communications. Yet in South Africa only one in a hundred black people in rural areas has a phone.

Only half the black urban population has access to a phone within five kilometres. In some new townships there are no phones at all. No way of making contact with an ambulance if there's an accident, or to phone your husband, wife or son in the rural areas if you are one of the millions of migrant workers living in poverty on the edges of the major cities.

Jay Naidoo, in the new South African government of National Unity has a vision: every household will have a postal address, a telephone address - even an Internet address. In a country where the end of apartheid in 1994 found a third of the thirty million black people destitute, a third with homes with no running water, half without electricity, this is indeed a revolutionary vision.

But there may yet be that revolution. And it is coming in the guise of the mobile phone. What started as a status symbol in the West, is now being harnessed by developing countries round the world.

No need for fixed phone wires across the vast countries of Africa and Asia, a digital cellphone base station can be put up anywhere, linked to a satellite or mast, adapting the technology of the mobile phone. Suddenly hundreds of phones can be used up to thirty kilometres from every mast.

But poverty is still the enemy. And so the South African government promoted the ingenious invention of the phoneshop. Instead of buying phones, you buy airtime. Adapting unused shipping containers to be digital phone containers, subsidised phones are shipped into townships and accessible to local people. They are funded by the two mobile phone companies in return for being the only companies allowed to sell mobile phones to the South African rich.

And as the companies become rich, and the poor start to get access to phones, some local entrepreneurs also get the chance to make money, as they get the franchise for the phoneshops, to act as middlemen.

Or, as in the cases of Ellen and Maureen, middlewomen. Ellen, living in Alexandra township, emerged from filling supermarket shelves to owning nine shipping containers, a supermarket, and a new life. Maureen, a single mother working as a graphic designer, keeps up her standard of living with the proceed of a phoneshop in a squatter camp a few miles from the bank in which she works.

The task facing the government is immense. They are part of the new global economy which prefers capitalist market economics over welfare states. So they are reliant on the big international companies to extend their largesse to the poor, with some encouragement and regulation from government. It's an uncertain future, but with visionaries like Jay Naidoo they are in with a chance.

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