Nº 10 2013 > Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela and ITU

Humanity and human progress

Nelson Mandela and ITUNelson Mandela and ITUITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré speaking at the opening ceremony of ITU TELECOM WORLD 2009Nelson Mandela and ITUNelson Mandela and ITU
ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré speaking at the opening ceremony of ITU TELECOM WORLD 2009

The whole world mourns the passing on 5 December 2013 of Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid leader and statesman

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 to the Thembu royal family in Transkei, South Africa. He spent the better part of his life in an epic struggle against apartheid in South Africa. In 1993, Mr Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in dismantling the shackles of apartheid. In 1994, he was elected President of South Africa, a post he held until 1999. During his tenure, he was also Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Madiba, as he was fondly known, will be remembered forever, not only for his accomplishments as a world statesman, but also for his deep humanity, his capacity for forgiveness, and as a champion of the downtrodden. Extending his heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family and to the Government and people of South Africa, ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré said “I have personally looked up to Madiba for inspiration, as nothing in the world could ever daunt him or hold him back from his life’s mission to free his compatriots from the yoke of apartheid. His towering personality will leave a lasting impression on me, and the world will forever enjoy the legacy he has left behind in an atmosphere of peace, humility and forgiveness.”

As a mark of respect to honour the passing of this great and inspirational leader and true champion of digital inclusion, the ITU flag at its headquarters in Geneva was flown at half-mast.

1995 – President Mandela speaks in Geneva at TELECOM 95

As President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela was a strong supporter of ITU. Speaking on 3 October 1995 at the opening ceremony of TELECOM 95 in Geneva, he recognized ITU as a body of crucial importance for the entire African continent.

With his customary humility, President Mandela explained that South Africa was deeply honoured by the invitation to take part in the opening ceremony of TELECOM 95, the seventh World Telecommunications Forum and Exhibition — and the very first in which South Africa was participating as a full member of ITU. He saw that participation as a testament to ITU’s steadfast support of his country’s struggle for freedom. “On behalf of the people of South Africa, we thank you for your solidarity, and express our joy at being so warmly accepted as a full and equal partner in the all-important world of telecommunications”, he said.

He also expressed his gratitude at being given a unique opportunity to present his views at TELECOM 95, which he saw as taking place at a special moment in the context of the world's potential for transition to a truly democratic information age.

Speaking not only about South Africa but also about the entire African continent, he said “We need a vast expansion of our communication and information network. ITU, as the principal driving force behind international policy, technological development, cooperation and skills transfer, is an indispensable agent in this regard.”

Representing the new South African regime, he took great pleasure in announcing that, following discussions between officials of ITU and the South African government, “we have formally invited the Union to hold its next Africa region Telecom Exhibition and Forum in 1998 in South Africa. We would be happy and proud to host this prestigious event.”

Mr Mandela went on to underline the importance of communication and access to information for human beings around the world, and stressed the need to work towards eliminating the divide between information-rich and information-poor countries.

“The value of information and communication is felt with particular force when, as happened in South Africa for so many years, their denial is made an instrument of repression. Such measures, however, ultimately evoke inventive and innovative ways of circumventing the restrictions. For example, as prisoners on Robben Island, when we were deprived of newspapers we searched the refuse bins for the discarded sheets of newspapers which warders had used to wrap their sandwiches. We communicated with prisoners in other sections by gathering matchboxes thrown away by warders, concealing messages in false bottoms in the boxes and leaving them for other prisoners to find. We communicated with the outside world by smuggling messages in the clothing of released prisoners. Not even the most repressive regime can stop human beings from finding ways of communicating and obtaining access to information”, declared Mr Mandela.

He saw the inexorable force for communication and access to information as applying in equal measure to the information revolution sweeping the globe. “No one can roll it back. It has the potential to open communications across all geographical and cultural divides”, he said.

President Mandela nevertheless identified one gulf that would not be easily bridged — the division between the information rich and the information poor. “Justice and equity demand that we find ways of overcoming it”, he asserted. He saw clearly that, if more than half the world was denied access to the means of communication, then the people of developing countries would not be fully part of the modern world. Speaking as a visionary at the end of the 20th century, he foresaw that in the 21st century the capacity to communicate would almost certainly be a key human right.

President Mandela knew that eliminating the distinction between information rich and information poor countries was also critical to eliminating economic and other inequalities between North and South, and to improving the quality of life of all humanity.

He was aware that converging developments in the fields of information and communications offered immense potential to make real progress in that direction. “The pace at which the price of communications and information systems has fallen has also undermined the previously rigid link between a nation's wealth and its information richness. There is an unprecedented window of opportunity”, he said.

Those were some of the challenges regarding the globalization of telecommunications and the information revolution which were of concern to South Africa and many developing countries, he explained. “If we cannot ensure that this global revolution creates a worldwide information society in which everyone has a stake and can play a part, then it will not have been a revolution at all”, he stated.

Heading towards the 21st century, he identified one of the highest priorities as being the development of a global information society based on justice, freedom and democracy. To that end, he listed a set of principles designed to enable the full participation of both the developed countries and developing countries in building a global information society. Those principles envisaged: global universal service in telephony and global universal access to the information superhighway; expansion of the global information infrastructure, based on partnership and rules of fair competition and regulation, at both national and international level; gearing the information revolution towards enhancing global citizenship and global economic prosperity; respect for a diversity of paths towards the achievement of national information societies; internationally coordinated evolution of policy for the development of an equitable global information society to ensure the sharing of information and resources; and education of young people in the skills needed for living in an information society.

In concluding his address to TELECOM 95, President Mandela emphasized the importance of young people to the information revolution. “Many of us here today have spent much of our lives without access to telecommunications or information services, and many of us will not live to see the flowering of the information age. But our children will. They are our greatest asset. And it is our responsibility to give them the skills and insight to build the information societies of the future. The young people of the world must be empowered to participate in the building of the information age. They must become the citizens of the global information society. And we must create the best conditions for their participation”, he said. 

Pekka Tarjanne, Secretary-General of ITU at the time, knew full well that, while the African continent needed the professional telecommunications support that ITU could provide, ITU itself and its Telecom activities would be bathed in the reflected glory of a radiant son of Africa. “We are absolutely delighted that President Mandela, who is such an inspiring figure to the world because of his lifetime of struggle against injustice, should feel that Telecom is an important enough event to fit into his very demanding schedule,” said Dr Tarjanne.

1998 – President Mandela speaks in Johannesburg at Africa Telecom

ITU accepted the formal invitation made by President Mandela and subsequently held the regional ITU Africa Telecom event in Johannesburg. President Mandela considered it a privilege to welcome Telecom participants to his country. “It allows our nation to take 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,” he said. “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 the global village sooner than we thought possible. For the developing world, this brings both opportunity and challenge.”

President Mandela saw that the world was rightly attempting to harness the immense potential of telecommunications, but he pointed out that the attempt was being made in the context of stark disparities between the industrialized and developing worlds, and warned that those imbalances could easily reproduce and entrench themselves. He said that “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 say that our collective vision is in danger of failing where it counts most, namely the goal of universal access to basic telecommunications services.”

He acknowledged that the targets set by developing countries to bring all humanity within easy reach of a telephone would not be achieved on the African continent as the new millennium dawned. He then posed the question of how— in partnership with counterparts in the developed countries — to bridge the gap so that Africa could march in unison with the rest of humanity into the 21st century.

In answer to the question of how to avoid drifting to the margins of the emerging global information society, he set out a new vision based on the recognition that the full benefits of the telecommunications revolution would be reaped only if certain fundamental principles were respected. Foremost among those principles was the right of universal access to telecommunications, a goal that new technologies made achievable. That was consistent both with a 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 and 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 to a world in which rapid change in information technology is reshaping 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 telecommunication sector in order to maximize the utilization of scarce resources will help in this regard. But in particular we need to mobilize our collective wisdom to attract greater investment in the expansion of telecommunication networks and for human resources development. Africa remains a huge untapped market for telecommunications and information technologies. Like other emerging markets, it presents huge opportunities for investors”, he said.

In his view, the investment needs of the rapidly expanding telecommunications and information technologies industry could not be met by the public sector alone. Rather, he considered that they could be met only through partnerships between the public and private sectors. Such partnerships would promote a climate for sustainable investment in infrastructure that would guarantee good returns and at the same time help close the information gap.

If these partnerships were to have the maximum effect in promoting the goals that he had set out, then they would need to have some coordinated vehicle like a dedicated African Telecommunications Development Fund. Such a fund would finance the infrastructure projects required to extend telephony to every village in Africa and would certainly put the continent on the map of the global information society.

He exhorted the international telecommunication community gathered together at Africa Telecom 1998 to serve 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 communication 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”, he said, concluding that “the freedom you helped us achieve has brought South Africa the opportunity to address the basic needs of our people through reconstruction and development.”

2009 – Madiba speaks via video to ITU Telecom World 2009

As late as 2009, Nelson Mandela continued to support the work of ITU. Speaking via video link at the opening ceremony of ITU TELECOM WORLD 2009, he underlined that “information and communication technologies are the single most powerful tool we have for human progress” and urged participants to “support efforts to connect the world and bridge the digital divide”.

That was Nelson Mandela — a truly remarkable and unforgettable man.


 

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