Technology: A social right!

When radio was first experimented with in South Africa, by techno-geeks in 1910s, it was not taken seriously. Government understood it as thing to be used for aeroplanes and ships at sea. This did not deter the activities of private users, who would exchange messages with each other and share music. One such notable figure was a man called Toby Innes in Johannesburg, Observatory. He started sending messages over the radio to friends nearby. As he continued experimenting he eventually managed to send messages as far as Cape Town, to other radio enthusiasts. By the end of 1920 many even ‘ordinary’ people who wanted to listen on the DIY radio-sets were now part of his regular audience. Most of the programme was dedicated to playing gramophone records, frequently Innes would interrupt the music for speech: he would make jokes and tease friends whom he knew were listening. When he closed his evening broadcast he would salute his mother “Good night, Mum.”

In those good old go-as-you-please days there was no censorship of scripts and no rehearsals. Innes and his crew had no specialized training; they had no clue of the ins-and-outs of studio engineering nor of broadcast etiquette. Many of the things they did by intuition (like supplementing gramophone records with live music by local Johannesburg artists) became broadcasting conventions later on, when radio became official. They were simply going with the flow, and became celebrities through mechanical tinkering.

It was only in 1922 that government decided to intervene. They felt an audit of the amateurs was necessary. Those who wanted permission to experiment would be granted only for “scientific investigations”. Again authorities did not fully comprehend the usefulness of the technology beyond science.

The implications were devastating for the amateur radio experimenters who had now formed ‘virtual communities’ in different parts of the country. Uninhibited by regulation, the cult-like following of Innes in Johannesburg and Streeter in Cape Town stimulated a vibrant underground interest in broadcasting.

South Africa got its first formalized broadcasts in 1924.

Authorities seemed to have gotten their wake up call by then of the importance of broadcasting technology. That radio was here to stay. But even then, black populations were neglected as potential users of the technology.

Although a lot of money had been invested by business and government in broadcasting, most of the companies were making a loss as a result of too few listening patrons.

In 1936, the government finally took over broadcasting by creating the monopoly of the SABC. By this time the public took radio seriously enough that the move was relatively uncontested. But again in establishing the entity black listeners of radio were never considered.

It was only in 1960 that the SABC began thinking seriously about black people as users of radio technology. Research papers and presentations were pursued: “Planning for selling to the Bantu market”. Business joined the bandwagon by creating cheaply made FM-radio sets, that would ensure that black people in urban and rural areas would be able to buy radios and consume whatever was being sold to them—be it washing powders or government propaganda.

It took over 40 years from radio’s inception for the government of South Africa to wake up and see black people as viable users of technology.

One would have expected this to have been a painful sermon on underestimating ordinary people’s ability to adapt to global trends of technological innovation.

I was therefore disappointed upon my recent move to Madadeni, to find out that Telkom ADSL internet was not available here for sale. Given that patrons of Telkom in Madadeni have had telephone lines in their homes for decades, I found this surprising.  I’m sure this is the case in many other townships.

It told me that when they decided to install ADSL connections, more than 10 years ago they stopped in the suburban areas.

They did not see the thousands of patrons they had in township as important potential customers in their business.

In so doing, mirroring the very same apartheid architecture and making the same assumption about users of technology that the apartheid government had made about radio.

Perhaps in another 40 years black people will be considered as users of internet technology.