Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!

Paper for the Conference:
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY, ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS AND THE
LABOUR MOVEMENT
14-16 APRIL 1992, GMB COLLEGE, MANCHESTER, BRITAIN


DEMOCRATIC ELECTRONIC NETWORKS: THE WORKNET EXPERIENCE IN
SOUTH AFRICA

Taffy Adler, the Worknet Electronic Host, South Africa


INTRODUCTION

The Worknet host is small in size and young in age. Neither of these features make it unique in the world of electronic communication. However, its location both within the cauldron of a changing South Africa over the past five years, and at the crossroads of a technologically advanced economy with a typically third world social base, give it an experience which belies its age. This paper will attempt to draw out at least the following lessons from this experience;

1. the implications of an e-mail system while under an repressive political regime and the changes in this role as the democratising process takes hold

2. the challenges of managing an e-mail system in a democratic manner

3. democratising the use of e-mail


A BRIEF HISTORY AND OVERVIEW OF WORKNET

Worknet's early life is characterised by a series of historical accidents. It began life in 1986 following the brief exposure of one of its founder members, during a study trip to England, to the wondrous world of Geonet. A chance discovery of a copy of communications software which could work on a CPM machine in South Africa (those were still around in 1986) allowed the first tentative and often frustrating links between Johannesburg and GEO2 to be established in May
1986.

The establishment of a progressive electronic communications system in South Africa took a further step when, towards the end of 1986, a local programmer, who was also working as a consultant for the newly established left-wing newspaper, the Weekly Mail, produced software for an e-mail system and bulletin board. This became the first version of Worknet. The Weekly Mail and its clutch of e-mail illiterate reporters, became the first group to wrestle with, and realise, the potential of electronic mail towards progressive ends in what was then a highly repressive South Africa.

From those early days, Worknet has grown to become the only national, non-profit, low cost e-mail vehicle available to the NGO community within South Africa. It has undergone three software upgrades (none of which has been without problems) in response to the need for greater capacity and more sophisticated services and currently offers a national, regional and international e-mail and conferencing service.

The Worknet host, using modified Major BBS software, services some 180 users within the trade union, development, media, human and civil rights, documentation, environmental, academic and peace networks, on a 24 hour basis. Within these fields the actual users tend to be bodies or individuals who are active in the processing and dissemination of information. These include the Trade Union Research Project, the International Research and Information Group, the research officers of the various trade unions, the documentation centre at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, and the library/resource centre at the South African Council of Churches. The independent South African press represented by publications such as the Vrye Weekblad and New Nation are amongst WorkNet's most active users.

WorkNet currently extends computer to computer links throughout South and Southern Africa, and increasingly to Europe, north and south America, Australia and Asia. It is linked to 200 conferences downloaded from the Geomail and APC systems, and currently traffics over 1000 items of international mail per month through its somewhat erratic (temporarily, we hope) international gateway. In its gatewaying programmes, WorkNet prioritises south to south communication, particularly in the Southern African region. The system currently gates to the Mango system in Harare 5 times a day, to Greennet and the Geomail system in London 3 times a day, to the Web in Canada, twice a day, and to the local Internet connection, which links mainly the academic systems, on demand.

THE POLITICS OF CHANGE

With this background, we can now examine the first of the themes noted in my introduction; the implications of an e-mail system while under a repressive political regime and the changes in this role as the democratising process takes hold.

When Worknet commenced operations at the end of 1986, South Africa was a highly repressive regime. PW Botha was the Prime Minister, Nelson Mandela was in jail, the various liberation movements were banned and in exile, the rebellions in the black townships and schools, while on hindsight were making a historic impact, seemed at the time to be being held at bay by an extensive, ruthless and increasingly violent security machine. From a media and information point of view, banning of material, seizure of equipment and publications, detention and even the assassination of media workers and civil rights researchers, tapping of telephone lines, interception of mail, were all common place.

This scenario gave Worknet two important priorities. Firstly the necessity to survive security police surveillance and interference, and secondly the focus of linking those groups involved in the struggle for freedom and servicing their information and publicity needs.

It's not necessary to spend too much time on the first priority here. Suffice to say that we managed to maintain a low enough profile, and survive the intermittent cutting of our telephone lines and constant monitoring of the information that went up and down the lines.

One important survival point I wish to make here relates to the financing of Worknet in these early phases. Given its political role, Worknet was supported in the same manner as other opponents of apartheid. We were thus able to access the funds being made available by the international anti-apartheid movement, notably the trade union and human rights organisations and some funds made available by foreign embassies in South Africa. For this we remain thankful, for the Worknet user base was not sufficiently large to make the system self reliant. As will be discussed later on, changes in the political situation in South Africa have changed the nature of funding Worknet.

On the second priority, Worknet succeeded at the level of supporting opposition groups, especially those in the media and notably the Weekly Mail, with the flow of information which allowed them to continually publish material opposing to the apartheid regime. This increasingly occurred not only within the South African context, but allowed reporters and organisations based in the frontline states, especially in Harare, Zimbabwe, and in the UK and US, to file stories not generally available to the South African media.

The second aspect of this linking was the flow of support material to, notably, trade union and civil rights groups, who would require the information in their various negotiations with management or the state apparatus. Examples would be of wage information in the different plants of a multi-national corporation, or health and safety regulations in a french power station whose designs had been copied in the South African counterpart, or human rights information originating from, for example, the United Nations.

It must be said that the use of e-mail was not widespread enough in South Africa during the repressive years of the anti-apartheid struggle to allow for the soliciting of solidarity messages and support around strikes, political rallies, protest marches or the detention and murder of activists. Trade union, political and human rights groups used fax and telex to inform those in a position to protest. We have not seen a duplication of the successful use of e-mail for this solidarity function as done by, for example, the ICEF.

What this reveals is the limitation of e-mail in the South African context to the information, as opposed to the political arm, of anti-apartheid organisations. In part this is due to the widespread familiarity with fax and telex technology. In part it is due to the lack of instant acknowledgement, when compared with fax and telex, by an e-mail recipient of a message. Conditions of constant police surveillance and the post office's ability to cut the connection gave instant recognition an urgency in the course of the politics of protest. The challenge of fax and telex to e-mail remains a constant theme of Worknet's activity in South Africa.

This role of providing additional information gave Worknet a particular organisational direction arising both from the political and the technological environment. Firstly Worknet needed to seek out international partners who would provide the information. Secondly Worknet had to invest time not only in developing the source of the information, but also in exposing South African organisations to the potential of networking, and having done that, training them in how to do that. This training and user support function has remained constant.

Worknet, like most other groups in South Africa has been affected by the rapid political change since February 1990. The increasing regularisation of the political process through negotiation between the major political parties, the opening of information access, the openness of debate within an increasingly limited horizon created by the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the success of monetarism as the dominant economic framework, and the sudden public awareness of the massive economic problems of an economy skewed by decades of minority greed, have all driven the politics of protest into the politics either of negotiation or of socio-economic development. Worknet now takes its place amongst the other NGO's of civil society in working towards the socio-economic development of our fundamentally unequal society. It has had to do so with the intention of making the network itself financially viable from its own resources.

In practical terms what this has meant is that Worknet is less concerned with political protest and security police surveillance and more concerned with financial viability and technical excellence at a cost that is still affordable to the NGO community. Our user base is now interested in the information we hold on the environment, on socio-economic development and on labour legislation. The demand is now for a reliable and cheap international gateway, and our mission increasingly is to bring this to groups who are aware of the technology in the abstract, but need concrete experience to bring them into the electronic community.

THE CHALLENGES OF MANAGING AN E-MAIL SYSTEM IN A DEMOCRATIC
MANNER

In its early years Worknet strove to serve its democratic ideals by operating in a representative manner. We looked for an active user group. We wanted user representation on the executive committee of the network. In reality this was not to be.

Like many similar service organisations, Worknet had to deal with the tension between democratic ideals and managing the system in a democratic manner. This has to do firstly with establishing a representative management structure in a situation where there is as yet no community of users to represent. Secondly we had to deal with the situation where in fact our users were preoccupied with their own issues and, despite our view that they should be, were not particularly interested in the nature of Worknet's representivity. Their only interest was in getting a decent service, and not willing to put the necessary time and effort into ensuring that the service was what they wanted.

This was somewhat of a system shock in a South African political environment which in the late 1980's required a mandate for everything. Over a three year period of attempting to establish firstly what was democratic in the situation, and secondly, modifying our principles in the face of practice, Worknet emerged with the following set of guidelines:

1: that the system would be established as an independent network servicing the interests of the non-profit NGO community

2: that democratic representation would in fact become a question of whether Worknet was representing the needs of users as indicated by the number of users on the system and the rate of, as well as the nature of the expansion. If more NGO's were joining the system, then clearly we were servicing the needs of our target community and would thus be representative of that community

3. that Worknet's contribution to democracy in South Africa would revolve around the democratising of computer usage, particularly as regards electronic communication. This clearly involved a greater commitment to training and skills transfer. It also involves ensuring technical excellence at an affordable cost to an NGO community increasingly required to replace donor finance with its own internal resources.

How did these conclusions on our role in society impact on the structuring of the Worknet committee?

The practical outcome was the registration of Worknet as an independent non-profit company, completely independent from any other agency, with the aims of servicing the non-profit NGO community in its information needs. Worknet board members were not appointed as representatives of any organisation but merely as representative of the ideals enshrined in the Worknet constitution. Existing Worknet committee members had put in enough time and effort to justify their commitment to these ideals, and new members were to be appointed in terms of a prior commitment to the use of the system and a desire to be actively involved in its improvement and extension in the South African context.

The current Worknet board consists of activists working full time in the trade unions, church, media, housing and information processing fields. All board members are politically active at various levels within the progressive movement and some have specific technical skills related to electronic communications and information processing.

Once liberated from the debate about the nature of internal democracy, Worknet has now given its full attention to the question of democratising electronic communications in the South African context.

DEMOCRATISING THE USE OF E-MAIL

Knowledge is power, and Worknet considers democratising electronic communications as a way of empowering people through access to information and to other groups and individuals. Democratising electronic communications has required a two pronged strategy in the South African context. Both of these derive from our status as an NGO in the dual third world/first world economy that charactarises South Africa.

One part of the strategy has envisaged the development of local technological capacity and expertise to run a low cost, efficient host. The other leg to the strategy has been to extend the number and skill of the communications family. These two thrusts have become the focus of our work in terms of the contribution to be made to democracy and development in the national and international context.

While computers dominate the administration of the South African economy and are therefore part of the lives of the vast majority of South Africans, computer users remain a minority even among those with the education, skill and financial means to access a computer. Within this small user base, especially in the progressive NGO community, there are those who struggle to use their computers to their full capacity. Stories are legion of computers lying idle for months because of a dysfunctional electric plug, or printer cable. In the smaller centres, repair facilities are poor, and the replacement of a modem can easily be beyond the means of the informal repair networks that exist.

The technical expertise, time and patience required of an overworked, under-educated, poorly trained union administrator to run a communications programme in addition to a wordprocessor and spreadsheet programme, has proved in many cases an unrealistic challenge. Its just so much easier from their point of view to use the familiar fax.

Worknet's challenge therefore is not merely to convince potential users of the time and cost benefits of electronic communications, but also to provide the training and support to ensure that once on the system, they remain users. From our side that requires dedicated specialists who are familiar with the problems of inspiring existing computer users about the potential of communications, and then giving them the support to maintain and extend their use of the system. We have been able to do this on a small scale. We hope to secure enough money to do it on a much larger scale in the near future.

The development of local technological capacity and expertise to run a low cost, technically efficient host is an imperative for those who understand that democracy is also about full information and real control of a system by those who are in charge of it. Worknet's experience here, which has intensified as we have looked to a more sophisticated system, will form a chapter in the literature on under-development and neocolonialism.

We have had to negotiate our way around donor requirements which in addition to ensuring that some of the money is tied to non-South African administrative support groups, or non-South African hardware and software suppliers, have also sometimes left us with debts incurred on the delayed and often very overdue transfer of funds. We have also had to deal with donor appointed system consultants who are both unfamiliar with the conditions I have described previously and arrogant in their refusal to accommodate them in their proposals. Such people are responsible for state of the art hardware and software languishing in offices around the country. Finally we have had to deal with the failure of foreign based consultants to honour system design and implementation programmes. This failure not only impacted on the technical capacity of Worknet, but also on our user base who have grown quite sceptical about our ability to deliver what we promised at the time and in the form we promised it.

These are the burdens and challenges of running a democratic network in a "developing country". They can be met, and Worknet has thus far managed to do so. Our guiding principles have been to get the system up and running in such a way that it provides technical excellence, at an affordable cost, with long term viability at both a technical and financial level, to the user base who needs it most.