South African policy activist becomes APC's new Communications and Information Policy Programme Manager
MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY, 30 September 2004
Willie Currie has become APC’s policy programme manager. A South African currently based in New York, from 1999-2002, Willie was a councillor with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and the South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (SATRA).
In the mid ‘90s, he was special adviser to the Minister of Posts Telecommunications and Broadcasting in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet and co-ordinated the telecommunications policy process that led to South Africa’ first post-Apartheid telecommunications policy document.
Prior to this, as General Secretary of the Film and Allied Workers Organisation (FAWO), Willie was involved in the development of broadcasting policy during the transition to democracy in South Africa and a public campaign to ‘free the airwaves’.
Having started in his new position with APC in early September, Willie has actually already been plunged in at the deep end, having represented APC at two international meetings in two different countries in his first ten days on staff. APCNews talked to Willie about his new role.
APCNews: You became APC’s Communications and Information Policy Programme (CIPP) manager at the beginning of September. What attracted you to the APC?
Willie Currie: I’m basically a policy activist and am fascinated by processes of change and resistances to change.
I noticed that APC had managed to position itself globally as an ICT policy actor with the capacity to impact on policy spaces such as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and the UN ICT Task Force. At the same time APC was working on ICT policy at various regional and national levels. I thought this is incredible – to have this kind of reach both to facilitate and influence policy change – I want to work for APC!
I also noticed that APC operated in the North and the South. I felt this may also create possibilities for policy approaches that could draw on the strengths of both Northern and Southern activists. There often appears to be a strategy divide between ICT groups depending on their location and yet ICT policy issues increasingly have to be addressed across regional and global boundaries.
In addition, APC staff seemed to be primarily women and APC work has a strong gender focus. I enjoy working with women and recognise that progressive policy and practices require the full participation of women and barriers to participation need to be eliminated. Too often ICT policies pay lip service to women’s participation while the sector remains doggedly male in orientation.
APCNews: What were you doing before you joined APC?
Willie Currie: I had recently completed a term as a councillor at the South African regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), which gave me some insight into the difficulties of ICT policy implementation and regulation. Prior to that, I had worked as a consultant and policy activist on telecommunications and broadcasting policy reform processes in post-apartheid South Africa. I was policy adviser to Dr Z Pallo Jordan, Minister for Posts, Telecommunications and Broadcasting in President Nelson Mandela’s cabinet. It was a period in which all the policies of the apartheid government had to be scrapped and replaced with progressive forward-looking policies. So it was an exciting time of hope, change and possibility.
After working for ICASA, I worked on small ICT consultancy projects and moved from Johannesburg to New York where my partner, Barbara, was offered an interesting job. In South Africa, I had noticed how global ICT policy impacted on national policy, in a context where we
were unable to adapt or challenge global policy prescriptions effectively.
In New York, I began a process of exploring the global ICT policy space and reading about globalization as well as observing how policy activists from the global South like myself see the world differently to those from the North.
I think this has to do with activists of the South having to operate under different conditions of struggle in which the presence of the North is built in as a factor.
The opposite is not true. Northern activists do not often operate with a consciousness of the global South in their activities. The South is not that present. If it is present, it appears chaotic, dangerous, authoritarian and poverty-stricken. A modern version of hell. They seldom grasp the dynamism and possibilities of contexts of struggle and transition.
What was interesting about the ICT sector in the USA was that ICT policy activists are confronting a similar set of issues that developing countries are also experiencing such as broadcast media ownership, the corporatization of the media, the transition to VoIP, the resistance of telecoms companies to competition, convergence, privacy and security, intellectual property rights, the power of Microsoft, and problems of affordable, equitable access to broadband.
It made me hopeful that synergies around policy could be reached between North and South that would not be solely on the North’s terms.
APCNews: What are your immediate challenges as you take up your new post?
Willie Currie: I need to focus on the African and LAC Policy Monitor Projects and CATIA process as well as seeing how the policy programme can extend into Asia. At the same time, I need to assist with APC’s global policy interventions in WSIS, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and regional WSIS processes. I also need to give some thought to issues of the environment and e-waste (which became part of APC’s strategic priorities for 2004-7) and get on top of the CRIS Campaign issues. APC is also continuously carrying out revision and review of the ICT policy training materials curriculum that was launched last year.
(For more information on APC’s Communications and Information Policy Programme: http://rights.apc.org/about.shtml)
APCNews: Clearly you’ve just started out at APC and you’re still getting a feel for the programme’s work and dealing with the immediate demands. But where do you see ICT policy issues going for APC and civil society over the next few years?
Willie Currie: I think there needs to be an initiative around global ICT policy that can ensure follow-through on the policy window opened by WSIS. I’m interested in exploring whether the co-operation agreement between India, Brazil and South Africa signed after the Cancun meeting of the Doha round could create a space for an alliance between progressive developing country governments and international civil society organizations like APC and CRIS to put greater flesh on ICT policy frameworks post-WSIS and stretch ICT policy in progressive directions. I believe there is an opportunity to develop such linkages without compromising the integrity of the organizations involved.
At the regional level, ICT policy gains such as the recent liberalization of VoIP in South Africa and Kenya need to be exploited to create a wave of policy change across Africa that can create open Internet access for all and the inclusion of the full spectrum of ICT issues at the same time.
What will be vital is to take full advantage of the policy window opened by WSIS and to work creatively to make concrete gains across the board. I am interested in finding ways of making ICT policy issues more manageable and intelligible. For example, in the African context, trying to crystallize policy around specific goals, such as :
• ICT as MDG (Millenium Development Goals);
• ICT policy/regulatory/legislative harmonization;
• Broadband infrastructure;
• Free and open source software (FOSS)
• E-government, e-health, e-learning, e-commerce;
• African content, community media and languages;
• Indigenous knowledge and reform of IPR regime;
• Open Internet access and rights;
• ICT for empowerment of women, youth and the disabled;
• ICT for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment;
• ICT for peace and conflict resolution;
• ICT for rural connectivity and poverty reduction.