Spreading power to the marginalised in South Africa

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 02/92 item 01 - scanned

As the computer industry has matured, it has become almost dull. Once upon a time, an entrepreneur like Sir Clive Sinclair or Steve Jobs could create an exciting new computer out of thin air. Few people cared about standards - the buzz came from creating something revolutionary, something better than anyone else. Nowadays, we see only evolution. As the industry has become more predictable, so the excitement has evaporated.

Yesterday, though, I got a taste of the old excitement. It took me back to the early days of personal computing when we were all convinced that these machines would change our lives forever.

In this climate of euphoria, I even started a community computing project called Computer Town UK. In 21 centres across the country, volunteers would take their computers to share with anyone who was interested. Demand for time on the machines was so huge, especially among young people, that we had to ration their time with us. For many, Computer Town was the start of an interest in computers which has lasted to this day. But, soon after the launch of Computer Town, consumer computers were born. These were the Acorns, the Z80s, the Dragons and so on. This development fuelled a massive national interest in computers and Computer Town eventually became irrelevant.

It was a good experiment, and we all had a lot of fun. Many Computer Town visitors went on to make their careers in computing. For every one of these, though, I suspect three more became addicted to computer games. In the grand scheme of things, I'm not sure we did a lot of good. But yesterday I heard something that was a far more valid and worthwhile exercise in taking computers to the people.

The apartheid system in South Africa has resulted in three major groupings of its population. Crudely stated, they are blacks, coloureds and whites, with the whites being treated most favourably by the state. The coloureds - defined as those of mixed race or of Asian descent - come second in the order, with the original Africans, the blacks, last. Even though apartheid is officially being dismantled, economic discriminations continue.

In addition, because the white population has been nurtured, it has the skills and knowledge to wield power and to participate in the running of the country. The blacks and coloureds, as a whole, are a long way behind. But, in order for South Africa to emerge from apartheid, it is vitally important that all sections of the community participate in the democratic processes. This involves a lot of catching up, which is where computers come in.

For years, the white schools have been using PC compatibles and Apple computers, but it took a long time before the government would supply non-white schools with machines. When they did, they supplied Commodore 64s. In the UK, these are regarded as games machines.

One of the teachers who saw the potential of computers was Ashiek Manie. He quickly realised that computing, in the sense of applying it to tasks, was not complicated. He saw computers in the white community as a multiplier of power. He also saw that, used properly, they could help the nonwhites lift themselves from their underprivileged position in society. He saw the computer as a tool for improving communication and education among coloureds and blacks, thus helping them participate more effectively in the democratisation of his country and in improving living conditions in townships and rural communities.

The organisation, of which he is now national president, is the Community Education Computer Society (CECS). The society has set up a number of centres in areas where they can take advantage of the white's power supplies and proximity to black and coloured townships. The organisation is funded by charitable donations (of money, skilled volunteers, equipment and supplies) and aid from sympathetic overseas governments. The aim of CECS is to help non-racial organisations to build self-reliance by focusing on the provision of both technical and organisational skills.

Desktop publishing systems and photocopiers, for example, enable communities to create training materials and newsletters. Modems and communications software allow dispersed groups to keep in touch and share information. People trained at the CECS centres are expected to both use and propagate the knowledge and skills gained for the benefit of their communities.

Now that's what I call an exciting use of computer technology.

The UK contact for CECS is CIT/TecAfrica, 23 Bevenden Street, London N1 6BH (071 608 1844).