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Where to next for telecoms in South Africa?

Faranaaz Parker

With an axe hanging over the head of Communications Minister Dina Pule, the country’s beleaguered communications strategy is once again at risk.

Communications Minister Dina Pule. (Gallo)

Over the weekend the Sunday Independent reported that President Jacob Zuma plans to axe Pule, after it was discovered that her alleged boyfriend Phosane Mngqibisa benefited improperly from the Cape Town Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Indaba last year to the tune of R6-million.

According to reports, Pule met with Zuma over the weekend and is to be redeployed as an ambassador. 

Although the presidency has dismissed the reports as "rumour and speculation", industry experts have warned that further delays and setbacks in the department could have dire consequences for the economy.

Spiwe Chireka, telecoms analyst for the International Development Corporation, said ICT is just as important as banking or mining but doesn't get the priority that it should.

"ICT is no longer just telephone calls and SMSes. It has the potential to impact on the economic development of any country and it has become a core economic sector," she said.

"There needs to be prioritisation of ICT, put in the minister that is just as answerable and taken to task as you see with ministers of labour, mining or finance."

Problem department
Pule's axing would mean four ministers in less than four years for the department, so it's unsurprising that it has failed to make progress on a number of key projects.

Among these are the challenge of allocating spectrum, unbundling of the local loop of copper cabling that provides services to homes and businesses to allow for greater competition in the sector, addressing low broadband penetration and the switch to digital terrestrial television. 

World Wide Worx founder Arthur Goldstuck agreed that government appeared to have little appreciation for the importance of ICT to the business environment in the country.

"Our government sees communication as a luxury, as the province of the privileged. It's certainly not that. It's a basic human right but also a basic building block of the South African economy," he said.

"It's been proven again and again that the more advanced your telecoms infrastructure, the more competitive your economy."

Goldstuck said that the single biggest challenge will be developing a sense of urgency regarding all of its most pressing tasks – from rolling out universal broadband, to speeding up deregulation, and licensing and transitioning to new technologies.

Right person for the job
But Khulekani Dlamini, head of research at Afena Capital, said that the first concern for the department going forward was even more basic: finding the right candidate for the job, someone with a good balance of technical expertise, political palatability and foresight.

"The problem here is to find an Andile Ngcaba, a person who is palatable to the party and an expert in telecoms.

"There's been quite a few people who've headed this ministry who, in my mind, had no business being there at all."

One area that would need immediate attention, Dlamini said, was the question of digital migration.

"The issue of digital migration has to [be resolved] fairly swiftly," he said.

However, he added, the question of the strength of the regulator, Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), would also need to be addressed.

"Policy already exists, it's not like you have to make new policy, it's more the implementation of the policy and the monitoring of compliance," he said.

Regulator
Implementing policy and monitoring compliance would only be possible if Icasa was independent and well resourced.

"If you had a regulator who's got teeth, can afford the appropriate skills and cannot be pushed around by the operators, in the end you'd get vision 2020 manifesting," he said, with reference to the Planning Commission's national development plan.

Dlamini said there had been big policy execution blunders in the department over the years – among them former minister Siphiwe Nyanda's decision to dismiss the European standard for digital television in favour of the Japanese standard, only for Pule to scrap this decision and return to the European standard again.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance's communications spokesperson Marian Shinn spoke scathingly of the department's lack of progress, and described the department as "floundering" as a result of years without effective leadership.

"The whole economy of the country is suffering because of this," she said, rattling a list of the department's failures, including broadband policy, spectrum allocations, the move to digital broadcasting.

"There's a whole lot of stuff that should have been done that hasn't been done. The chaos at SABC, the turmoil at Icasa, the huge unsolved corruption at [the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa], the entire board of which was suspended last year, huge qualified reports, misspending of money – the department is in turmoil. It doesn't get anywhere and doesn't seem to do anything," she said.

Misunderstanding of communication
Shinn said rumours of Pule's axing, which originally began circulating last year, were "an indication that the ANC doesn't really understand what the role of communications is in the economy".

Meanwhile, TechCentral editor Duncan McLeod said that based on the department's troubled history, it was easy to draw the conclusion that the ANC doesn't take the ministry seriously.

"Maybe it's unfair criticism but it's a perception that government sees this deparment as the department that looks after the SABC and nothing else," he said.

"Some of the decisions it needs to make can impact the economy to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year."

McLeod said he believes it would make more sense for the department to be folded into the department of trade and industry and be run by a group of technocrats rather than politicians.

"There needs to be stability, which we haven't seen for years in this department and the department needs to be staffed with the right people to make the right decisions, rather than the politicking we've seen to date," he said.

Ministerial fail
After an initial stabilisation under competent ministers like Pallo Jordan and Jay Naidoo, the department was led by a series of lame duck ministers.

Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, who ran the department for almost a decade was known for being more talk than action.

When Matsepe-Casaburri died, the department was turned over to Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who had just been removed from her post as health minister.

The move was only meant to be temporary, and she was soon replaced by Nyanda, a man known more for his expensive hotel stays and squandering of public funds than for his communications know-how.

Nyanda's taste for the finer things – financed via the public purse – soon cost him his job. 

He was one of a handful of ministers axed when Zuma cleaned house in a Cabinet reshuffle at the end of 2010. At the time, the communications department was considered by some to be on the verge of collapse. 

Nyanda was replaced by the well-respected Roy Padayachie, then the deputy minister of the department. Padayachie won the support of communications industry insiders with his plans for a turnaround, and seemed committed to righting the ship but was redeployed to public works after less than a year.

The communications department was then handed over to Pule.


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