South Africa, why are you not running Linux?

Ubuntu, my personal favourite Linux distribution, has recently released version 14.04 LTS. LTS stands for Long Term Support: LTS releases are supported for 5 years, meaning that with 14.04 you are covered until 2019.

Trusty Tahr, as 14.04 is known, is beautiful, functional and still free.

Ubuntu means "humanity to others". It also means pretty desktop!
Ubuntu means “humanity to others”. It also means pretty desktop!

This seemed like an opportune moment to get something off my chest. I’m trying to understand why South Africa, my current home, is not running more Linux. In this post, I’m going to summarise the reasons why I think that, especially in SA, we should move away from proprietary solutions such as those offered by Microsoft and Apple, to solutions that are technically at least as good, are completely open and free, and, perhaps most importantly, better empower us to stimulate our local technology ecosystem and the national economy.

Cost to the national economy

Every year, I and a few million other South Africans pay a boat load of income and other taxes. Because in SA not everyone is able to pay tax, it is especially important that this money is used for the common good, for issues such as health-care, education and job creation.

However, instead of using my hard-earned tax to stimulate local industry, the South African government is sending millions of rands, each and every year, to Microsoft, a fantastically rich company in the USA, a fantastically rich country in comparison to South Africa.

The majority of government workstations absolutely don’t need MS Windows, MS Office or Outlook. The majority of government employees would be able to do their job (email, reports, spreadsheets, forms, use of web-apps) better and more securely using Linux.

Furthermore, the use of Linux and open source software encourages the use of open standards for public documentation. In 2007, the SA government officially standardised on the OpenDocument format. However, MS Office use is still rife, and encourages people to use Microsoft’s own XML formats. Although MS standardised these in a bid to stay in the global government game, OpenDocument should be preferred, as it’s better supported by more free and open packages that are available to all citizens, not just those with money for MS Windows and MS Office.

As an added but very important advantage, some of the considerable funds that would have been sent to the USA for MS licensing and support would then be injected into the local Linux support economy, stimulating local skills and creating more high-tech jobs.

Don’t you find it strange that South Africa, a developing country, is sending that much money to the USA when better solutions exist? Don’t you too think that it would be great to have a thriving and more independent Linux-based operating system and application industry right here in SA?

Personal cost

I just checked, it looks like the cost for an OEM license of Windows 8 in SA is R1000. We want as many as possible South Africans to have access to computers and to have access to internet. You can get a cheap PC for R3000 to R4000. It really makes absolutely no sense to spend R1000 on Windows, when Linux would work perfectly well on that same PC hardware.

It gets even more silly when you add in the price of MS Office. For 95% of personal users, packages like OpenOffice or LibreOffice, completely free and even open source, or Google Docs, not open but free, are more than sufficient.

A part of the problem here is simply momentum. Because everyone is still using Microsoft products, everyone thinks that that’s what you need to have. Imagine that the government standardised on Linux, it would not take long before people would then evaluate this as a serious choice when acquiring a new PC.


For the largest part due to Edward Snowden’s actions, and great journalism by The Guardian, it is now widely known (and much has been corroborated), that the NSA and other intelligence agencies around the world have been eavesdropping on everyone and everything.

An important part of this practice, is the working relationships that these intelligence agencies have built up with software vendors around the world. When you run MS Windows or Mac OSX, or any other prioprietary software, you have absolutely no way of knowing, or checking, what your computer is doing with your information. It sounds like something from a spy movie, but the NSA works closely with Microsoft to be able to hack into computers running Windows.

In the case of personal use, this may not be such a problem, but in the case of the South African government and the whole corporate world, it’s slightly crazy that everyone is willing to take the risk that all of their information is being snooped on by cooperating intelligence agencies.

With open source systems one can’t be 100% sure either, but one is able to check and modify and part of the system, at the source code level, that one is working on. Based on this openness, I have personally in the past programmed kernel drivers to support new hardware, and fixed low-level driver bugs. This was possible only because I have access to the source code of everything on my system.


There you have at least three reasons why we here in SA should be running more Linux. Not doing so is costing our national economy money, and it’s costing our people money. More importantly, we’re missing a huge opportunity of technologically and economically empowering South Africans.

A more general point I would like to make, is the following. It turns out that the whole world is actually running Linux already: android telephones, tablets, TVs, zillions of servers, and so on. When you teach people how to use this open and free Linux system instead of the proprietary alternatives, you are in fact teaching them how to control the world.

23 thoughts on “South Africa, why are you not running Linux?”

  1. #EveryYearIsTheYearOfLinuxOnTheDesktop ;)

    All jokes aside, nice commentary piece though.

    I’m curious though why you somehow give Google (Android overlord) a free pass in your criticism?

    Also, what about issues like Heartbleed, etc.? Clearly OSS isn’t necessarily the more secure option.

    The vast mayority of users are not going to go look at the source code of the kernel they’re running, even if they could.

    Have you taken a look at how much malware, trojans, spyware and other crap like that is on Android?

    1. To respond to your point about Heartbleed, even though I’m not the author of the post: the Heartbleed bug in no way has anything to do with open-source, nor does it prove a point. Vulnerabilities and bugs happen everywhere – the point of open-source (from a security point of view) isn’t to make vulnerabilities impossible, but to make them easier to audit/spot. That’s exactly what happened with Heartbleed.

      There’s more about this here:

    2. I’m happy you popped by Rudolph!

      1. I only mention Android in the list of things contributing to Linux being everywhere these days. If you know Linux, you have a headstart with Android. — that being said, the Android source open, and is quite intensively used, reused, modified and distributed by the hacker community.

      2. I know you like pointing at Heartbleed. ;) I think Sven has responded well to your point.

      3. The vast majority will indeed not study the source code. However, any organization / government / institute has the practical possibility of reviewing, auditing and modifying Linux distribution source code. They have the freedom to make use of any number of other organizations to do so on their behalf. That’s not the case with proprietary systems. We have to trust the vendor in question that everything’s OK. Post Snowden, that relation has become increasingly strained.

      4.I know about all of the malware. That has far more to do with the process (primarily Apple’s strict reviewing), not with the fact that Android is more OSS friendly. That being said, at least Android phones can’t be held for ransom that easily:

      More globally speaking, and keeping any personal commitments out of this, you know that I’m right about the SA situation. For SA, and probably for more of the developing world, an unrestricted and free open source system makes much more sense in terms of economic impact, accessibility and job and skills creation.

      1. “More globally speaking, and keeping any personal commitments out of this, you know that I’m right about the SA situation. For SA, and probably for more of the developing world, an unrestricted and free open source system makes much more sense in terms of economic impact, accessibility and job and skills creation.”

        I’m really too far removed from the situation on the ground in SA to know if your right or not on this one, but given my general high level respect for your opinion on these matters (and track record of thinking deeply about them), I’ll defer to your judgment here. :)

        I’m in general leery and cautious about blanket statements of open-is-always-better. Case in point: Google ( )

        Sure, I agree with you that if the source code is available then lots of eyes can in theory go look at it and find problems there. That being said, if it isn’t somebody’s day job (for which he get compensated) to do so, often that will never happen. Many of these critical flaws in OSS crypto/security libraries have been there for quite sometime. Just saw this today:

        My view here is basically this: Pick the right tool for the job based on analysis of it’s own strengths and weaknesses (which includes notions of total cost of ownership, easy of use, ease of maintenance, quality of user experience, security, allowing-you-to-get-on-with-your-life-without-needing-a-CS-PhD-to-use-the-tool, etc.) Don’t simply pick a tool because it is NOT-from-a-company-I-don’t-like.

        1. My blog post should have none of those blanket statements. I just checked: In the bit on security I said that you also can’t be 100% sure, BUT you have the possibility of paying someone or something to audit your system, or you have the possibility of appointing someone and making it their day job to audit your systems. This auditing (and remedying) can happen at a level that is NOT possible with proprietary software.

          W.r.t right tool for the job: I absolutely agree with you here also. In this case, as part of the metrics you should keep in mind, are issues such as the affordability of your systems (in a Linux ecosystem, we can build cheaper PCs), and the effect on your economy (in an open source ecosystem, we would need whole fleets of LOCAL technicians who can be locally trained by wholly local training institutes — all these streams of cash could flow around inside of SA, only exiting when really needed) — all of this would create more opportunities for local businesses, without having too pay too much tax to MUCH richer countries.

          Heck, who knows, the world needs more and more OSS and Linux engineers and expertise, SA would have a new export product.

          I’m not envisioning a 100% open source future, just a future where we are not indentured to one or two foreign companies, but are allowed to mix and match to do the job.

  2. Good article
    I used Linux earlier but got stuck on the MS route.

    Where can I get the actual software for Linux?

    Please advise.


    Dennis A.

    PS. I run a publishing business for the fields of Occupational Health & Safety, Mining, Aviation, Labour relations, Military law, etc.

    My main wordprocessor software is IBM Lotus Word Pro [lwp files] would Linux fit our needs.

    1. Hi there Dennis, thanks for stopping by!

      In your position, I would download the latest Ubuntu from here:

      (on the donation screen, just click the “Not now, take me to the download” at the bottom left)

      You should get an ISO that you can burn onto CD. If you boot from this CD, you can try out Ubuntu Linux without installing.

      I just checked, LibreOffice (which comes for free with Ubuntu and other Linuxes) can import your LWP files.

      If you were to go down the Linux route, I would strongly suggest evaluating OpenOffice or LibreOffice as your new office software, along with its universally standard OpenDocument format. This is also since 2007 supposed to be the official format of our government! (Linux has _excellent_ open source DTP-oriented packages, such as InkScape and Scribus. Steep learning curve, but super powerful.)

      If you’re feeling up to it, you could plan such a migration yourself. However, it would make sense to involve a Linux support company in your region. Let me know if you need help finding one!

      If you’re in Gauteng, I can recommend Obsidian:

  3. This is also a pet hate of mine. It is deeply engrained in the government see I think it is largely because it gives the illusion that accountability can be pushed to microsoft.

    I was however pleasantly surprised that south Africa’s first national bank(fnb) is switching to Linux, momentum here is a big sucker I don’t envy the guys who need to ensure their Sharepoint and Microsoft exchange servers need to play nicely with Ubuntu clients. I did have to reassure the very frustrated banking assistant that her frustration would go away when all their services were based on Linux.

    Education is also a stuff up, IT skill is often defined as how to use Microsoft office products. I have met ‘experienced web developers’ who never thought that maybe an Ajax request does not have to end query a microsoft sql server.

    On a slightly personal note I was pleasantly surprised today with pymssql and sqlalchemy , access from python in ubuntu linking to a sqlserver instance on a windows network was a piece of cake.

    So to summarise some people are trying to move things to linux, but with lack of people that are competent with both windows and linux infrastructures it is going to take some time. Want to help ;).

    1. Hi there Phillip,

      Thanks for all of this juicy information! I have heard many good things about FNB, but this definitely takes the cake. Seems to be one of the important events I missed whilst living in the overseas:

      I have that same idea about MS: They used to say “No-one ever got fired for choosing IBM.” where “IBM” has now been replaced by “MS”. However, when your brightest engineer chooses Linux, it’s on *her* head.

      Of course I want to help. I’m still thinking in what way I can contribute my time most effectively to the cause. I feel strongly enough about this that I would donate a few hours of the negative time I have available each month to forward it. Obviously I find it important to choose that activity carefully, so that it has the most possible impact.

      I’ve been considering making N hours available for free to any company or institute seriously considering to migrate N*100 workstations / servers to Linux, but my skills definitely lie more in Linux software engineering (and education! I’ve taught people all kinds of stuff and they’re still ok!) than they do in devops.

      Any other ideas? :)

  4. Good post, and I appreciate the energy and enthusiasm you put into this. And had to laugh at Rudolph for #EveryYearIsTheYearOfLinuxOnTheDesktop :)

    For me, fighting for the adoption of Linux is noble in its own way, but not the best way to make an impact in South Africa if you have a limited amount of time, energy and money.

    Nations that have developed and grown and improved (China comes to mind) did not do this by fighting small ideological software wars. Use Microsoft, use Apple, or use Linux. Use whatever works for you, and focus on the big stuff. *EDUCATION*. HEALTH. Working Infrastructure, Less Corruption, Advanced Technology, Manufacturing. If you focus on those things, you’ll have spare money for your Windows and Office license and then some.

    Big things first.

    OK that was my rant. I admit that you can’t do all of that. Kudo’s for playing to your passions. Making a difference through something you love is better than doing nothing at all. (I am currently much closer to the latter)

    1. “There’s this Thing 1 that we can do now, it’ll improve the situation.”

      “Yes, but Big Thing 1 and Big Thing 2 and Big Thing 3 are more bigger and important. They *should be taken care of* first!”

      I can almost hear System 2 handing over to System 1 there. ;) (and I’ve seen this pattern occur in so many discussions about other topics as well, some of them close to home. When you transfer responsibility to the Big Things that you don’t have that much sway over, you get to sit back some more in your chair.)

      I agree with you 100% on the big things. However, my personal effect on them is limited. In contrast, you and I could make a difference in our surroundings with Thing 1, and this will also have an effect on Big Things.

      (BTW: Your example of China — It would be great if South Africa did not have to continue on the software piracy route in order to feed their dependency on systems that take resources out of the local economy and knowledge pool. MS making available a cheaper but crippled OS for developing economies: Patronize much? :)

  5. It would be a good addition to your article if you could somehow find out how much money the SA government actually pays for Microsoft-related products…

    My guess would be a few hundred million rand per year?!

    1. That would indeed have been awesome! I did search for it whilst preparing this post, but was not able to find any figures.

      If you know someone who knows someone… ;)

    1. yo Tim! Looks like it’s taking place at 18:00 UTC, is that correct?

      If I’m not busy with something, I could pop in to the IRC channel and see what people have to say!

  6. Yes, at 1800 UTC, 1h from now. The live video will be on the URL I pasted above, and usually interested people can even get the hangout link if they ask on IRC.

  7. Charl, taking the price that Sahara charges for Windows 7 or 8.1 + 20% markup, it comes to R 1,918.80 excl VAT! I would presume that is pretty much what it costs elsewhere, so R1000 is too low for sure.

    1. Hi there Roland! I was looking for the OEM price and not the off-the-shelf price (which is what you cite, no?), because usually that’s what a PC maker has to pay, and is the extra amount you have to pay to run Windows legally on your new computer.

  8. I am surprised that no-one has mentioned the city administration of Munich yet?
    When I first read this story it put a smile on my face. A large organisation willing to take the risk and prove OS is the right thing to do.
    The visit by Steve Ballmer is priceless.

    Unfortunately things aren’t going too well in Munich, and they’re assessing whether they should be going back to MS.

    On a personal note, I’ve had various dual boot installs of linux over the years and lately VM’s. But as I have had less time to mess around and research why an install doesn’t work with a specific piece of hardware, I have migrated to OSX mainly. Sadly, because it just works and I dont have the time to make things work.

    After using OpenOffice then Libreoffice for the last 8 years, just 2 months ago I bought an MS office subscription. Why? Because my collaborators on a paper were using MS, and I being the odd one out was introducing minor compatibility issues (with advanced functions) that just weren’t worth the price for MS office, when all the hard work is considered. (And LibreOffice on a Mac is pretty poor when it comes to stability)

    I realise my personal problems are “first world” and not the intent of the discussion, but LiMux brings some interesting experience to the table.

    1. Hi there AJ, it’s always great to welcome you here!!

      I have been following LiMux quite closely, and will surely use it as part of our OSSSA efforts. I was quite shocked when I heard (initially) about the possible move back to MS, and slightly relieved when I saw that everything was just being re-evaluated by the new mayor: — I’ll keep an eye on this.

      With regard to your OSX move: First world privilege and problem. :P (seriously, if people want to use pretty operating systems and OsiriX :) they should be able to. If they’re operating on my tax money however, they should have very good reasons to do so.)

      With regard to your MS office subscription: This irks me to no end. It’s the same with my partner. Because her tax-funded colleagues insist on using MS products, it’s almost impossible for her to continue using Linux and open source and still collaborate with them. If this were a great product with no healthy alternatives I could live it. But it isn’t, and it has, so I can’t.

      Furthermore, research should be reproducible by everyone, no? Using open source as far as possible (LibreOffice, LaTeX, R, DeduceR, etc. etc.) means your whole research pipeline is accessible by all of your colleagues and the people that funded it.

      I hope that you’ll “join” OSSSA when this comes from the ground. Joining will probably mean following the twitter account or subscribing to the blog, when I get time to make that.

      (For curious readers: OSSSA is Open Source Software for South Africa, a non-profit organization that will hopefully soon come into existence to campaign for more OSS in SA)

  9. Something to keep in mind – Microsoft offers a robust academic package for schools and Uni’s. With that license you’re looking at around R50 for the most recent Office Suite and R70 for Windows 8.1. That cost curve is pretty much standard throughout their entire software range, including Server OSes.

    Microsoft Office is the most used product in it’s class in the working world so it makes sense to to tool the kids in that – similarly MS Windows.

    This isn’t a Linux vs Windows debate, both have their advantages – but in terms of real world non-niche skilling, I’d say the MS options hold much value, especially at the prices that are offered to academic institutions.

    At University level the needs might be different.

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