Worknet, Sangonet & the struggle for digital freedom


FROM two floppy disks smuggled into South Africa in the late 1980s, to an NGO which continues to play a major role in responding to the Information Technology (IT) requirements of the NGO sector in South Africa, this is the unique story of SANGONeT.

In the late 1980s, not long after Bill Gates had moved from his garage into a boardroom, a quiet IT revolution was taking place in Africa. Organisations and individuals, working on the front lines of human rights and development efforts, were beginning to make use of computers, modems and telephone lines to exchange information.

Arriving back in South Africa from Sussex, Alan Finlay says with “two floppy disks, 64kb of memory and an external modem” was, “a leap in the dark”. “No-one knew how it would turn out. It was the future responding to the surrounding environment. 1

WorkNet brought together what Taffy Adler describes as a “motley crew of union, civic and church activists” and some “progressive computer boffins What this motley crew shared was an interest in harnessing the potential of the new communications technologies for change.

Hooking up anti-apartheid organisations and NGOs to basic email services and newsgroups gave these organisations an edge against the authorities who had yet to embrace information technology.

Simone Shall, WorkNet’s first manager, describes his experience getting unions connected.“We were training the unions on PCs, and wrote a small package for them to manage their memberships,” Shall recalls.

WorkNet attracted the attention of techie activists working elsewhere in Africa, and overseas, as a global network emerged, linking non-profit organisations around issues such as environment, women’s rights, and development. GreenNet, a non-profit Internet Service Provider (ISP) become an important ally for WorkNet. With support from a sister NGO called Poptel (Popular Telematics), an international gateway was set up to WorkNet that would connect it to NGOs across the globe.

The initial set-up at WorkNet was rudimentary; nothing one would associate with today’s modern service providers. The WorkNet international link was automated for example, using a simple DOS-based ‘store-and-forward’ email system called Fidonet. The server would dial-up to the GreenNet/Poptel server in the United Kingdom twice a day to download any text mails which were forwarded back and forth from node to node, in a system which predated the World Wide Web.

‘WorkNet originally used some home-brewed scripts to act as a standalone bulletin board system (BBS). Then it migrated to a commercial BBS product called MajorBBS, an early open source programme, Subsequently WorkNet then upgraded to a Sun Sparc station running SunOS, before moving to outsource its network to a commercial provider in the US.’

Although the Worknet service was eventually forced to close as a result of the introduction of commercial competition from services providers such as MWEB and iAfrica, both of whom were able to provider better connectivity, at cheaper rates, SANGOnet continues to support NGOs and is in the forefront of introducing Information Communication Technology (ICT) initiatives in response to civil society requirements and national development priorities.

Lessons which may be learnt from SANGOnet and in particular Worknet, is the way technology may provide activists with an edge, often in periods of conflict, however this edge is only available for a short time, since new technology constantly replaces the old thus levelling the playing field. Often the experience is one of cat and mouse, with each new technological development implemented by activists being countered by big business and capitalism, think of the way pirates use peer-to-peer (P2P) software to download illegal files, in turn service providers invent new technology to counter these threats.

1Adapted from Alan Finley, The SangoNet Story, 20 years of linking civil society through ICTs 2007 ISBN 978-0-620-39102-3

First published online as a chapter in The Media Activist Handbook

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