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Opinion: Colonisation of South Africa continues

By   |  December 8, 2005

There is a worrying dimension to the uptake of technology in South Africa. As sub-Saharan Africa\’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced country, South Africa is a good indicator of how Africa is embracing computing and other technologies.

South Africa imports a great deal of key technologies, particularly software. It is glaringly obvious that despite the benefits accrued through local software use, vast sums of money are flowing offshore into US and European hands. This is yet another example of Western colonialism, the key ingredient of which is retaining us as a market for their products. We should instead encourage our own intellectual growth and develop our own assets.

This is complicated by FLOSS, which is Free/Libre/Open Source Software. Many developing countries, with Brazil as a leading example, have embraced FLOSS with open arms, and the South African government has followed suit by adopting policies which promote the use of FLOSS at least as an equal to commercial software.

There are already many FLOSS success stories. The unstoppable march of Linux in particular onto a server, and soon, a desktop near you, is a widely accepted fact. And there\’s no question that FLOSS is changing the face of software around the world.

However, the key principle behind FLOSS is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. That principle is based on the idea that software intrinsically belongs to all people and was first proposed by Richard Stallman who is known as the father of \”free software\”. It is also based on the premise that keeping the source code private or proprietary is in some sense \”wrong\”.

This quickly breaks down into a discussion of the invalidity of \”intellectual property\”, full stop, and basically argues that both knowledge and software should be free, should not respect national borders, and should be accessible to all.

The emotional appeal of this approach is undeniable. And it doesn\’t stop there. Economically it makes fantastic sense for developing countries to have access to \”free\” software (so-called because it is free-to-buy), and to be able to implement top-notch technology at a fraction of the cost of the proprietary alternatives. There remain many arguments about software quality and community development which go beyond the scope of this article.

Comments

6 Responses to “Opinion: Colonisation of South Africa continues”

  1. Dean
    December 8th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    Jarred, your article expresses the fears of all currently comfortable companies who are about to be dislodged by the OSS steamroller.You can\’t compete with zero cost.

    You and the media industry need to realise that the business models are changing. Perhaps a re-read of the \”Cathedral and the Bazaar\” would help your cause..

    So this colonization you speak of is just a demonization of the state of OSS. There have been plenty of contributions to many linux projects by South Africans, and the contributions will grow as we expose more people and get a larger portion of the SA community exposed to computers with Linux on.

    Ubuntu is a great example of an open source organisation and Mark Shuttleworths vision may give you a good idea of the inside of an OSS company.

    Speaking of colonisation, the greater budget for IT education in South African schools goes to MS, now thats colonisation if I\’ve ever seen it.. pure evil!

    How about empowering some South Africans eh.. And not the ones driving beamers in Sunninghill!

  2. z
    December 9th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    I understand the fact that we need to develop South Africans and have all those monies rather going to contributing to our people. And I support that 100%.

    On the other hand, colonization might be somewhat of an exaggeration. Colonization is an evil. War is an evil. Human nature is capable of many things under sufficient provocation or enticement.

    In Africa we often hear of the colonization from the western world. Yet a million people were killed in rwanda. Not by westerners. Africa has so many wars and small scale colonization happening amongst themselves. This is rarely brought up when speaking of colonization.

    I don\’t want to be insensitive to past evils. Evils they were. But keep it in perspective. Some Africans are quick to speak against westernization, yet they couldn\’t live without the technological and other benefits they have from western inventions.

    Sure in Africa things are done differently, but sticking to the blaming game is not going to promote progress. We could have a victim mentality and live in fear of what the west does or we could embrace the fact that we\’re all human with our own mistakes and move towards actively changing our own circumstances while accepting what others have to offer.

    The fact that a Fin developed an operating system that has been freely and widely distributed can hardly be called colonization. At most some could be called religious and might be considered as extremists. That Fin\’s initiative has great potential for helping South Africans. We already see operating systems being translated into local languages. It is difficult to see how that could be called colonization. Open source has great promise for South Africa.

    The us and them mentality has lead to many evils. I do not believe it to be a solution, in fact it seems to me to be rather disempowering.

    I agree that we should be working on South African solutions and believe that we will see much of that in the next few years.

  3. Noel Grandin
    December 9th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    Classic FUD.

    Accounting and legal related software packages generally require extensive localisation, but even the classic FOSS model works great – if the changes become too great, simply fork the project.

    Cambrient is obviously suffering because they cannot compete.
    And yet many other South African companies manage to work within the FOSS framework by developing significant local expertise in applying, modifying and customising FOSS projects, thus keeping funds AND expertise the country.

  4. Mike
    December 9th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    \”Intellectual property is not just a matter of who owns what, it\’s also a matter of who has the skills and ability to make, invent and control. Linux is open source, but in fact Linus Torvalds still holds a pre-eminent role in deciding what makes it into the kernel and what doesn\’t. And Linus is a Fin who lives in California.\”

    So is the US taking adavantage of Linus in some way, or has Finland colonised the US?

    Linus holds pre-eminent status because he created the kernel and, so far, has done an exceptional job of seeing that whay goes into it is advantageous to the community. Without somebody playing this role (which by the way Andrew Morton has, I believe, significant input to) Linux would just be a rerun of the UNIX wars. There would be no standard platform for South African developers to code to, except MS. Isn\’t that what we are trying to avoid?

    In any case, if you object to the decisions that Linus is making, you can always download the kernel code and start your own comunity around your South African kernel.

  5. Jaco du Preez
    December 9th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    A bold statement is made about intellectual property, and that if we as South African contribute to “International” open source software and that we are not building our own intellectual property, but that we are giving it away.

    Here is the thing, when last did you read a technical book, an academic journal, when last did you attend an academic conference? All of these share knowledge or \”give away\” intellectual property.

    Today we are in a world where knowledge is power, and by sharing it does not mean giving away the power.

    Proprietary software model worked great for 30 years, even today Microsoft is moving away from this model that made them No1, just to start moving towards a service model. If Microsoft knows this, why is everyone else believing in the model, trying to hang on to the model that use to work, but will not work in the future.

    I am not saying, stop all proprietary software. There should be proprietary software, but software that is widely used by thousands or even millions of users should indeed be open source. Software such as operating systems, office productivity suites, ERP, CRM, CMS, and a hundred thousand others.

    Jaco

  6. Kevin
    December 13th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    Free Software is free because it can be shared, modified, and redistributed, but it can\’t have these rights taken away. That is, if you adopt a program and modify it to your own needs, then you will always be free to use and distribute that program. This is why it\’s owned by everyone equally and why you should be free to use it.

    The GNU operating system has copious amounts of documentation (GNU/Linux specifically requires all packages to be documented), and there\’s a transparency in the system that means learning is much easier than with proprietary systems – an order of magnitude easier in my experience. The notion that programmers only learn skills when writing proprietary homegrown software is both wrong and absurd.

    There\’s still a need for custom software just as ever. But better to make use of (and contribute to) mature free software packages, leaving more time for customisation, than to attempt to write everything from the ground up. Obviously!

    So those who were fooled by the reasoning in the above story, I hope you can disregard the protectionism proposed, and view Free Software as an international effort for our own personal gain.

    Complain when at work if you\’re struggling with some poorly written software that you have no power to diagnose or fix. Free software doesn\’t leave you powerless.

    Question when your government spends millions on licensing costs (almost always, as correctly stated, on foreign software). Free software is a viable and sensible alternative.

    And try to always question the opinions of people with a vested interest in selling crippled software under restrictive licencing terms. Their view are likely to be clouded.

    See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/ for more information.

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