Business, Story of the Day, Technology|November 15, 2011 10:32 am

SA’s Walk to Online Freedom

Dangerously addictive...

20 Years of Internet Access

This past weekend South Africa celebrated an interesting anniversary. For many, the occasion went unnoticed, but for Safindit, the day had great relevance! As a business that eats, sleeps, breathes and lives the internet 24/7, we couldn’t help but want to honour those pioneering souls who brought us this vital technological tool just 20 short years ago.

We have to admit, we were a little surprised to hear that Grahamstown was the location of the very first ‘Ping’. That sleepy hollow of the Cape? That last bastion of arty-farty hippydom was the last place we expected to find IT gurus with the savvy to perform this kind of task! Still, creativity was needed and it came in the form of some industrious IT students stationed at Rhodes and another geek camped at his PC in Portland, Oregon – Randy Bush. Incidentally Bush was later awarded an honorary doctorate by the Eastern Cape University for his contribution.

Heavily reliant...

South Africa gets Connected!

It’s hard to believe that South Africa’s internet is only two decades old. Today we take for granted the availability of online information and the convenience of email as a daily working tool. Sure, we bemoan our country’s lack of high speed lines and free access, but we are connected! We shudder to think where we would be if the internet had never reached the darkest depths of Africa…

So it was on the 12 November 1991, with South Africa still in the depths of apartheid and worldwide scorn, that the first packets of data flowed over the internet to and from our shores.

Bush’s email was also received by Fred Goldstein, Chris Pinkham at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Alan Barrett at the University of Natal. At the time, Barrett was exploring the possibilities networked computing offered for communication and sharing of data while Pinkham conducted similar research at UCT. Both men then discovered Mike Lawrie, who worked at Rhodes and who had managed to find a way to send email internationally. Pinkham was trying to see if he could connect Unix systems to the university network so that they could exchange email. Eventually he, Barrett and Paul Nash went on to start South Africa’s first commercial internet service provider, Internet Africa in 1993. Internet Africa went on to become UUnet South Africa, then Verizon Business and finally MTN Business.

Resistance is futile.

Lawrie’s involvement in that first ‘ping’ was pivotal. It took long hours of persuasion, international phonecalls and plenty of cable to bring it all together, not to mention their biggest challenge: trying to convince an international network to connect with a highly unpopular country. Eventually FidoNet was willing to give them a chance. The result is the earliest known IP connection between Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world, heralding the dawn of online communication in South Africa.

So much has changed since then. So much development has occurred. The world has grown at such a rapid pace and there’s no telling where the internet super-highway will lead humanity. Already there are plenty who believe it will be our downfall, but it could just as easily be our lifeline.

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