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SA government goes open source

South Africa is joining countries such as Brazil, India and Uganda in implementing open-source software in all government departments — and getting rid of widely used Microsoft Windows desktop programmes that come with expensive licences.

Open-source software can be shared by many users without a need for licences. The actual code can be accessed by anyone to make changes and adapt it to different situations.

A Cabinet-approved policy and strategy to implement such software will lower administration costs and enhance local IT skills, Themba Maseko, head of the Government Communication and Information System, said last week.

“All new software developed for or by the government will be based on open standards, and government will itself migrate current software to Foss [free and open-source software],” he told a media briefing at Parliament.

By April, a project office will be set up by the Department of Science and Technology, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the State Information Technology Agency to ensure the smooth implementation of the new strategy.

Karl Fischer, the government’s open-source project manager, says some government departments have already been using open-source software for “back-end” processes such as mail servers.

He said the new strategy will place open-source software in all areas of government. From mail servers to desktop applications such as word processors, there will be a move towards Linux-operated open-source software.

Petition

Last year, Sangonet and other NGOs petitioned the government and Minister of Public Service and Administration Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi to adopt an open-source software policy following a declaration signed at the 2005 Go Open Source conference at the Sandton Convention Centre.

The petition was endorsed by the Centre for Policy Studies, the Freedom of Expression Institute and the Institute for Security Studies, among others.

It urged the government “to take a stronger, direct leadership role to the benefit of all”. The government accounts for more than 50% of the country’s ICT use and should set a precedent that favours open source and its underlying principles, it added.

“As a developing country, South Africa, along with all the countries on the African continent, needs you and our government to act as agents of positive change in our society and trigger shifts in the ICT market dynamics, in order to favour the supply of local ICT content, support, skills and service providers, and to reduce our long-standing dependence on imports and the negative effects created by this dependence,” the petition stated.

It further held that in the spirit of broad-based black economic empowerment, the government had a responsibility to implement open-source software and make it easier for other, smaller ICT users to access the hardware and technical skills needed to sustain it.

David Barnard, director of Sangonet, says it is possible the petition prompted the government to implement open-source software. However, the decision had been “brewing within government” for a while, he said.

Fischer confirms that it was an internal government decision to implement open-source software fully. But, he added: “Obviously we do listen to what [civil society] have to say.”

Benefits

Government personnel will be trained to use the new software at the Meraka Institute’s training centres throughout the country. Open-source training materials are also freely available, making them more affordable and accessible to users.

Despite these training requirements and other initial costs, Fischer says open-source software will be more affordable in the long term. “Our hardware won’t need upgrading … but it would have needed upgrading if we switched to Windows Vista. Linux will work out cheaper.”

The cost of Linux is significantly less than that of the Microsoft licences the government has been paying, he says, although he declined to give the actual cost of the new operating system, as it will only be implemented fully by December this year.

“Because the whole open-source community is backing us, we can harness the whole community to help us,” Fischer says. “People are very keen to help out where they can … and where they can’t, we will have to get the necessary skills, and we have the funds for it.”

Pfungwa Serima, MD of Microsoft South Africa, says the software giant fully supports the standards on which open-source software is based, as it is “in line with our software development strategy in enabling interoperability between software from multiple vendors, thus allowing customers to choose the application for their specific requirements”.

Judgement reserved

Though “on-the ground” institutions and training centres are already set up, Sangonet’s Barnard says he will reserve judgement until he sees the initial roll-out plans. “This is a huge opportunity for South Africa to make it work … but it may be one of those decisions that were undertaken, but the follow-through is just not there.”

Fischer says that along with a cut in costs, the open-source strategy will also foster inter-community development, transparency and sharing, and build local skills to enhance and support the new software. “And, instead of giving money away to multinationals, we are keeping it and putting it to use internally.”

However, Barnard says a major challenge is the lack of public understanding of the principles of open-source software.

“The important thing is for people to understand the economic, social and other values we could derive from it … and in the bigger mindset is the creation of an information society in the country. [We need] proper understanding … the capacity, expertise and political will to do something to implement it.”

However, the strategy does “look good on paper”, he adds, and its implementation will “say to the world that South Africa is — in a national, political and strategic way — committed to open source”.

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