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· Roddy Bray's Story-Letters from Southern Africa ·

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Poor Technology?

This morning I was on my balcony musing over itineraries. My eyes carried to the sight of a middle aged man in a threadbare track suit, carefully placing a broken piece of plastic on the ground. He disappeared into the bushes for a moment and returned gripping a long stick. This he raised behind him a few times in a backward swing, before practising making a circle back and forth. Then, with great The golf course, cape town with devil's peak beyond concentration, he assumed a poised position over the plastic scrap. Bent knees, head over, he shifted his weight slightly on to his right foot, lifted the stick and whoosh, thwack, struck the plastic full square, launching it into the air and over the road. It was an impressive shot. He looked pleased.

The man in question is Philip. He lives opposite the Metropolitan Golf Course, in a clump of bushes in the yard of the Forestry Department. He has been homeless for 18 years but earns a little from working as a caddie on the golf course, whenever a friendly face will employ him.

South Africa is a curious land. The first and third worlds exist in the same nation but occupy completely different realities. Busy highways with fast German cars are flanked by enormous shanty settlements. Honest men live in bushes opposite pristine golf clubs. Maids work in vast mansions and return to tin shacks at night. But all of this is well known. What has caused me to ponder of late, is the way first world systems are part of the lives of the poorest people, and how technology is changing and can enhance their lives.

I was once asked to look after an estate in the lovely Constantia Valley for a couple of weeks. The 7.5 acre property was under the management of a hopeless committee. Unable to decide who to appoint as manager they asked me to stand in for a couple of weeks. I was there 18 months. There were three men who worked as gardeners and lived on the property - Headman, Wiseman and Helper (yes, these are their real names).

These men come from the Transkei an area about 800 miles from Cape Town (the birthplace of Nelson Mandela). Dotted across the landscape are the round thatched huts of hundreds of kraals. It is a poor area and over-populated. The soils have been eroded by overgrazing. In the bad old days of apartheid, when black people were Typical hut Lesotho/ Transkeiforced to concentrate in homelands, it became impossible for the large population of the Transkei to survive by cattle grazing, and so men left their homes to travel to the mines of Johannesburg and the docks of Cape Town, to earn money to send back to their families. Often this was the main source of income for large extended families and the men were away 51 weeks a year.

Headman first left the Transkei in the 1970s, to work on the mines. One can hardly imagine it was an easy job for a man 6'1". He finally became a gardener in Constantia 15 years ago. Wiseman became a cleaner in Cape Town in the 1980s and joined Headman in 1993. Both of them support their families in the Transkei from their meagre wages. Wiseman has six children.

The passage of money to the Transkei has never been easy. The post could not be trusted. So Wiseman and Headman (and thousands more in their position) would entrust their money to a friend travelling east. This friend would pass the money to another friend and so on, as it made its way to the right village and right kraal. It was a haphazard business and you can imagine the uncertainty the men and their families faced, unsure if the money had arrived in full, if at all.

Recently, however, the new managers of the estate have had a brainwave. They have helped Headman and Wiseman set up internet bank accounts. Now the men use the internet connection in the conference centre to transfer funds from a Cape Town account into a Transkei account. And their wives, equipped with card and PIN withdraw the money from an ATM.

Pre-paid electricity is another instance of the first world in the third. Rosie has electricity in her shack in the Khayelitsha shanty town. She has a small house made of corrugated iron and works as a cook in her local community, providing take-aways at 6c (US) per meal. She works long hours (starting at 4am) and makes a relatively good income. She has a radio and TV, a heater and lights. Unfortunately, until the late 1990s the power supply was often cut-off, leaving her, literally, cold and hungry in the dark. This was not because Rosie failed to pay her bills but because electricity was supplied to the area, and if too few people paid, the power was disconnected.

Enter new technology. On her wall is a box with three faces: happy, straight and Typical township shopsad. These faces light up according to her credit level for her pre-paid electricity. When her credit goes 'sad' she visits a nearby shack where there is a computer terminal. She pays whatever she can afford and is provided a number. She enters this code and thus credits her account. This pre-paid individual metering means she is not cut off.

Access to loans is another area where technological innovation in South Africa has helped the poor. Banks are never enthusiastic to provide loans to the poor. The UN and others have tried to organise loan co-operatives but the management of these projects is expensive. So, a Cape Town company has made an arrangement with a national bank to lend money through its ATM's. The micro-borrower attends a one week training course, called the 'township MBA' and at the end receives a special ATM card. With this they can borrow R300 ($30). If they pay this back on schedule (plus a reasonable interest) they enjoy insurance cover and a share in a distribution fund. Once the first loan is paid off they can borrow R600 and so on, doubling their limit each time. If they fail to re-pay they simply lose the privileges and can borrow no more. This system has enabled tens of thousands of very poor people to begin trading in clothing, food and other products. And the entire system because it all works through computers - is run by a handful of people and is a profitable company.

Telecommunications are a vital link for marginalised communities. In townships and rural villages throughout the country you find shipping containers filled with telephone booths. Entrepreneurs can buy these units from the state telephone company on favourable terms. These units use cellular technology to link into the main telephone system. The price of calls is high, but it means there is telephone and, theoretically, internet in areas that will not receive regular lines for many years to come.

In many ways South Africa has suffered from creating a society where some live in the first world and some in the third. The gap between rich and poor has left the poor resentful and the rich afraid and blinkered. But as the country has pulled together in the last decade and sought to address the needs of the poor, the know-how and capacity that exists in South Africa has provided cutting-edge solutions to some of the problems of poverty. South Africa is well placed to offer these technologies throughout the developing world all the developments mentioned above are being promoted by South African companies across the continent. Now isn't that a message of good cheer?


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