Technology: Our Internet in Tsonga

While we watch the battle of the giants unfolding for reduced mobile termination rates in South Africa, an even bigger thirst-that-cannot-be-quenched is for Internet data.[1] The people want more and more data. No one is yet able to respond to this demand convincingly.

But perhaps jumping on the naming-and-shaming bandwagon between government, ICASA, and business about the cost of telecommunications would be too easy a temptation. (The arguments are now well rehearsed. Government too recognizes this as seen in its National Development Plan, where emphasis is placed on the need for a nationwide e-strategy to enable growth and economic development.) And so to avoid that temptation, let us take a moment and calmly think about the inherent opportunity that lies ahead.

What does an internet-saturated South Africa, and Africa-at large, look like? Who will consume that internet data and with what content? Whose technology will define what matters in the minds of the people? Is it necessarily our own interests that will be best served by that technological landscape? We may wake up one morning, with these questions unresolved, and find ourselves feeling very sorry, with no one to blame. Why? because we did not know nor did we perceive the season. We did not devote our attention to the delicate task of shaping our own future.

Friend, now more than ever before is the world in need of men & women whose gift is to understand the times, like the sons of Issachar of ancient days “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”.[2] The sons of Issachar had a very unique anointing in ancient Israel, they were keepers of the biblical calendar, they were biblical astronomers/astrologers who kept track of times and seasons. For example, when Israel was divided as to whether to support David or Saul as king the sons of Issachar were able to totally commit themselves to David, because they understood that it was the time for God to fulfill His prophetic word given 17 years earlier (see 1 Sam. 15:28).

What should we be paying close attention to in this season? What should we really be investigating with diligence and sacrifice?

A technological imagination is “the wellspring of technological innovation.” It is a mindset that “enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible.”[3] Although technologies trace their origins to human needs, they are not always guided by human need, in fact they may at times even force humans to redefine their own personal needs. Often these redefined needs are to the benefit of profit-makers from elsewhere and political authorities.[4]

To avoid this from happening much is to be explored in the preemptive capturing of this field: from tablets that speak Tsonga, to engineering that suits African conditions; there are many directions in which we could imagine our technological landscape going. Not only from a purely mechanical point of view, but also in the cultural, social and geographic dimensions that determine how human beings act through technology.

Let me explain by way of historical example.

On the 18th of December 1923, South Africa had its first public broadcast at the Railways Headquarters in Johannesburg.

The South African Railways (now called Transnet) in partnership with Western Electric company, assisted by wireless amateurs and local musicians organized a series of broadcast to raise funds for the Empire exhibition. Being involved in the first official broadcast in the country was a way of demonstrating power for the South African Railways. For Western Electric it was a marketing exercise, to display their new mobile-broadcasting paraphernalia. They provided the 1 Kilowatts medium frequency transmitter.

The broadcast was aired to a large outdoor audience at Cape Town station, and a loudspeaker system was installed outside the station in Johannesburg. Those few who were already fiddling with radio sets in their homes could also tune-in. Tuning-in four miles from the station one listener found the experience “very favourable” in relation to London broadcasting he had once heard. There were mistakes made. A musician had to be told to “sh-sh!”, s/he had interrupted General Smuts’ first speech on radio. But can you blame the musician? Who knew how to behave on radio back in 1923? Aside from the glitch, every word of Smut’s high-pitched, squeaky voice was heard on two pairs of Brown’s 8000 ohm headphones, which speaks well of such a set.

News reporters in Johannesburg whinged the next day about the poor sound quality of the loudspeaker system at the station. They could not hear Smut’s speech very well, lightning from an approaching thunderstorm had caused interference. It was an oversight for which engineers could be excused for the first broadcast. But from then on violent thunderstorms (a unique feature of summer in the Highveld) had to always be kept in mind. Radio had to respond differently in South Africa. As a result, once fully-fledged, radio systems came standard with an earthing system. Early broadcasters would frequently end with the injunction: “Don’t forget to earth your Aerial”.

That was an instant where the global technology of radio could not simply be implemented, but had to take in consideration unique geographic conditions of the country. I believe there are many unique conditions even today that need careful thinking (including cultural and social concerns) in order to unlock true value out of technological innovations.

The foresight of thinking men and women who follow the calling of the sons of Issachar, who will pursue knowledge and understanding is needed here.[5]

Now is the time to cultivate a spirit of inquiry amongst ourselves, through rigorous study and endless debate. God’s word is to guide us through the chaos. He who spoke long ago, is able to speak even today. Shall we wait until its too late?


[2] 1 Chronicles 12: 32. The Lord granted them an anointing to understand the prophetic timing for when He would tear the kingdom of Israel away from rebellious Saul and give it over to his servant David (1 Sam. 15:22-28).

[3] Balsamo, Anne (2011). Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work.

[4] One writer relates the time when formal schooling was becoming more common in Germany in the 1800s, how suddenly “children learned to read silently to one’s self”. Here arose a change in habit, created not so much by organic need than by social/political realignment fitting to the demands of growing industrialization.

[5] Proverbs 1: 28-29 “Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me. Because they hated knowledge And did not choose the fear of the Lord,”