Mandela’s Leadership in Media and Telecom Leaves a Strong Legacy in South Africa

by Marcella Gadson on December 11, 2013

Nelson Mandela CheeringYesterday, thousands of South Africans, dozens of world leaders, and millions online collectively celebrated the life of anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, known for his decades-long struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, spent 27 years in prison for his activism and eventually became the country’s first black president.  During his time as president, Mandela transformed the nation and improved living standards across the board, from healthcare to education.

Many are unaware, however, of the impact Mandela made on the South African media and telecommunications industries in his lifelong efforts to improve the lives of South Africans.

Radio Access for Rural Children and Families with No Electricity

South Africa’s landscape under apartheid rule was bleak for black men, women, and children. The only professional positions available to blacks were as teachers, lawyers, and physicians to black patients.  Children and adults had less access to education and the tools they desperately needed to improve their lives.  Many families had no access to basic 20th-century needs like electricity.  There was, therefore, a tremendous racial gap in wealth and the general standard of living under apartheid South Africa.

In 1994, riding the wave of optimism just after the apartheid regime was abolished and the nation elected its first black president, South African entrepreneur Rory Stear and colleague Chris Staines saw the potential in wind-up radio technology – technology that would grant South Africans with no electricity access to news and education, thanks to power generated by a hand crank on the radio.

Stear and Staines bought the rights to develop the technology and established the Freeplay Foundation, a nonprofit organization to bring the “Lifeline” radios to poor people in rural areas who needed them.

In 2003, the foundation teamed with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund to provide free radios to orphans and minor heads of household, training them on how to share them with other members of their communities for educational purposes.  The children used the radios to learn school lessons, receive information about AIDS awareness and prevention, learn about water and sanitation, and become more aware of the politics of their country.

Thanks to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Freeplay Foundation, which still distributes the radios to needy families, innumerable lives have been changed as citizens have more opportunities to improve their lives.

Diversification of the Media

In addition to his role in helping children and families access vital information and learning opportunities through radio, Mandela was a fierce advocate for diversification of the media and freedom of the press in South Africa.

Although South Africans relied heavily on radio and newspapers for their news and information, the nation’s media industry experienced a heavy period of consolidation throughout the 20th century.  In the mid-1990s, non-whites made up 89 percent of the South Africa’s population, yet had no ownership, participation, training, stake, or control in the nation’s primary instruments of communication – wireless and media.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), which regulated the radio industry, was segregated, and Mandela understood that he could never achieve a functioning multiracial democracy where the vast majority of people had no stake in the instruments of mass communications.

Mandela saw that the SABC was desegregated by 1996, after the passage of South Africa’s Telecommunications Act.  That year, the corporation also privatized six lucrative radio stations to various black-controlled groups, raising more than 500 million rands ($48 million) for the South African government.  Today, all 11 of the nation’s official languages receive airtime.

A similar story unfolded within the newspaper industry.  A number of diverse newspapers existed when the African National Congress was founded in 1912, but they were acquired by larger, white-owned papers over the decades, until there were virtually no black publishers by 1950.

In a 1992 address to the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers Conference in Prague, Mandela sternly objected to the idea that the failure of black publishers was due solely to market forces.  Instead, he said, “[the] hard facts of the matter are that successive white minority governments have, since 1910, steadily undermined and destroyed the legal property rights of the disenfranchised majority of South Africans.[…] It was the brutal application of racist law that deprived the African community of the economic capacity to build and sustain any autonomous institutions of value.”

Mandela went on to lament the harsh reality of the time, that “three large conglomerates, drawn exclusively from the white racial group, dominate the print media of our country.…What is disturbing … and in our view, harmful, is the threat of one dimensionality this poses for the media of our country as a whole.”

After his election in 1994, Mandela took concrete measures to end this disparity in media ownership.  By 1997, Mandela enacted a new, non-discriminatory Constitution for the nation of South Africa, ensuring that the right to freedom of speech, expression, and the press were included.  Today, there are hundreds of daily, weekly, and regional newspapers in circulation in South Africa, reflecting a variety of languages and viewpoints that more accurately reflect the diverse demographic tapestry of the nation.

Wireless and Internet Services for the Nation

While South African blacks were recovering from the chains of Apartheid, media and telecom reform played a pivotal role in helping them uplift themselves.  Mandela was a visionary during his presidency, recognizing the vital role the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure played in the revitalization of his people.

Two years after Mandela was elected, his Parliament passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to “provide for the regulation and control of telecommunication matters in the public interest.”  The Act outlines several goals, including “to promote the universal and affordable provision of telecommunication services; to make progress towards the universal provision of telecommunication services; [and to] ensure that, in relation to the provision of telecommunication services, the needs of the local communities and areas are duly taken into account,” among several others.  By 1997, the nation had its first public videoconference, connecting South African citizens to Americans during a technology fair.

Today, several Internet service providers are working to construct country- and city-wide fiber optic networks.  According to a 2012 report by South African Internet think tank World Wide Worx (WWW), broadband access in the nation more than doubled over the previous two years.  While individual broadband subscriptions represent only 11 percent of the population, WWW Managing Director Arthur Goldstruck stated, “This may seem small, but it is still light years ahead of where we were five years ago.  It suggests that, five years from now, mobile broadband and smartphones will be the conventional means of access, rather than fixed line, which will increasingly be confined to small business.”

More Work to be Done

In spite of the many progresses in media, telecommunications, education, health, and other societal improvements made during Mandela’s iconic presidency, there is still much progress to be made.  There are only four free-to-air terrestrial television channels in the nation and questions of bias in media coverage.  In spite of South Africa’s progress in wireless, only 19.7 percent of the nation’s households have the Internet at home, and speeds average just 4.16 Mbps.  Still, South Africa is considered the most digitally connected and progressive nation on the continent, and it continues to serve as an inspiration to others.

As President Obama said during Mandela’s memorial service, “For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe, Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection.… [In] America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.”

  • Marcella Gadson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice Web Magazine and Director of Communications at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC).

  • Follow Us on Facebook
  • Follow Us on Twitter
  • Subscribe to Newsletter

Previous post:

Next post: