/ 19 March 2010

A communication breakdown

An unseemly wrangle between communications watchdog the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and the Communications Department could result in government funding being cut off to both institutions and key parastatals falling under them, including the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Sentech and the South African Post Office.

If their budget and strategy documents are not tabled and approved by the time Parliament recesses next week, state funding will cease on April 1, the start of the new financial year.

At a hearing of the parliamentary portfolio committee on communication this week, it emerged that Minister of Communications Siphiwe Nyanda had not tabled Icasa’s three-year strategic plan before the National Assembly by the March 3 deadline.

Communications Director General Mamodupi Mohlala sent a last-minute letter to the committee, claiming that the regulator had submitted its business plan to the department late and in the wrong format.

However, it is unclear why Mohlala submitted the letter just 24 hours before the committee meeting, when the deadline fell two weeks earlier.

As a result, Icasa chairperson Paris Mashile and his 26-strong delegation, which flew to Cape Town to appear before the committee, were prevented from making their presentation.

Committee chair Ismail Vadi said there is an “umbilical relationship” between Icasa and the department. “If one entity doesn’t have its budget approved by us, the whole Department of Communications’s budget can’t be approved.”

The committee gave the department and Icasa until Tuesday to sort out the mess and return for a special hearing, so that the matter can be finalised before Parliament goes into recess next week.

But the department must also return to have its budget approved, after the committee sent it packing last week because its budget documents failed to provide sufficient detail.

Muttering and sniggers
At this week’s committee hearing, ANC MP Johnny de Lange commented that when the department had appeared before the committee, he had heard muttering and sniggers from the Icasa members present.

Congress of the People MP Juli Kilian told the Mail & Guardian that she believed the department and Icasa were at war and Mohlala was dragging the parliamentary committee into it. “Is this not an attempt to place Icasa in a crisis, to stop budgets being awarded to them, so that they collapse?” asked Kilian.

Democratic Alliance MP Niekie van den Berg said he believed the government wants to exercise stricter control over the regulator. Nyanda should carry the can, said Van den Berg, as he had failed to exercise political leadership.

Nyanda’s use of political power during the negotiations with South Africa’s cellphone operators on interconnect tariffs was seen as sending out a clear signal that he has lost faith in Icasa’s current leadership.

An insider close to the dispute said that massive changes were expected at Icasa, with Mashile’s term due to end in June and the terms of three councillors and the chief executive ending in September this year.

“It’s tit for tat,” said Kilian. “Mohlala comes from Icasa and the information I have is that she has axes to grind.”

Mohlala denied any dispute between Icasa and the Communications Department or that she had a score to settle. “I left Icasa in 2007, voluntarily so. I do not harbour any hard feelings against anyone at the regulator.”

Explaining the dispute over the format of Icasa’s strategy document, Icasa spokesperson Jubie Matlou said it was unclear what “template” should be used. He said that based on the committee hearing and discussions with the minister, Icasa would submit a new plan.