Address by President Nelson Mandela at the opening of Africa Telecom 98, Johannesburg

4 May 1998

Secretary-General of the ITU, Dr Pekka Tarjanne;
Your Excellencies; President of Egypt, Hosny Mubarak;
President of Ethiopia, Negasso Gigada;
President of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings;
President of Senegal, Abdou Diouf;
President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe;
Distinguished guests,

It is a great privilege to welcome you all to our country. We feel deeply honoured that this first Africa Telecom in which a South Africa fully participates should be held in our country.

It allows our nation takes its place in a forum of critical importance to Africa's future. And it is an opportunity to give practical expression to our desire to be fully part of the rebirth of our continent.

For this, for the co-operation and assistance in all the preparatory work, we thank the ITU and its African members. We trust that Africa Telecom 98 will repay the confidence you have shown in allowing us to host this prestigious event.

Ladies and gentlemen;

As the information revolution gathers yet more pace and strikes deeper roots, it is already redefining our understanding of the world. Indeed the speed of technological innovation could bring the ideal of a global village sooner than we thought possible.

For the developing world this brings both opportunity and challenge.

As we seek to harness the immense potential of telecommunications, we do so in the context of stark disparities between the industrialised and developing worlds, imbalances that can all too easily reproduce and entrench themselves.

Although much is being done in attempting to bridge the gap between the information haves and the information have-nots, the task remains daunting.

Indeed it is sobering to consider the information revolution from the point of view of global development and its capacity to help raise the quality of life.

We have to acknowledged that the targets set by developing countries to bring all humanity within easy reach of a telephone will not be achieved on our continent as the new millennium dawns.

We therefore need to ask ourselves how we can bridge the gap, in partnership with our counterparts in the developed countries, so that Africa can march in unison with the rest of humanity into the 21st century. How do we avoid drifting to the margins of the emerging global information society?

Our starting point must be the need for a new vision, one that is based on the recognition that we will only reap the full benefits of the telecommunications revolution if we respect certain fundamental principles.

Foremost amongst these is the right of universal access to telecommunications, a goal that new technologies make achievable. This is consistent both with our principled commitment to equity and with the role of telecommunications infrastructure in socio-economic development.

In addition, we require a massive investment in human resources. Education, training for specialists, students and business people are key elements in preparing our countries for the Information Society.

And we need to create a telecommunications infrastructure suited a world in which rapid change in information technology is re-shaping the way business is done.

To do this we have to overcome the most pressing challenge facing Africa in this sector, namely limited finance for investment in infrastructure.

A restructuring of the telecommunications sector in order to maximise the utilisation of scarce resources will help in this regard.

But in particular we need to mobilise our collective wisdom to attract greater investment in the expansion of telecommunications networks and for human resource development.

Africa remains a huge untapped market for telecommunications and information technologies. Like other emerging markets it presents huge opportunities for investors.

The investment needs of this rapidly expanding sector cannot be met by the public sector alone. They can be met only through partnerships between public and private sectors. Such partnerships will promote a climate for sustainable investment in infrastructure that guarantees good returns and at the same time helps close the information gap.

If this partnership is to have the maximum effect in promoting our goals, it will need to have some co-ordinated vehicle like a dedicated African Telecommunications Development Fund. Such a fund would finance the infrastructural projects needed to extend telephony to every village in Africa and would certainly put the continent on the map of the global information society.

Ladies and gentlemen;

Two years from the millennium, let us take the historic opportunity of Africa Telecom '98 to position the African continent in the global village.

Through the deliberations of the next five days let us serve our future generations of Africa's children well.

Let us lay the basis for a partnership to take Africa into the Information Society of the 21st century:

a partnership that should help turn millions of Africa's illiterate children into engineers, doctors; scientists and teachers;

a partnership that should make access to basic health services through communications technology a reality for every African;

a partnership that should give millions of Africans working the land access to global markets;

in short, a partnership that should help fuel the African Renaissance.

Ladies and gentlemen;

The freedom you helped us achieve has brought South Africa the opportunity to address the basic needs of our people through reconstruction and development.

It is now my pleasure to invite you to share with us our efforts to propel our country into the information age, as part of the total transformation of our society. We offer this presentation as a modest contribution to the proceedings of the conference, which I now declare open.

Thank you!

Issued by: Office of the President

Source: South African Government Information Website