A turf war between the two Cabinet ministers charged with implementing South Africa’s digital migration programme threatens to derail it, just eight months before the 2015 deadline.
Mail & Guardian sources in the government say the tensions are so high that they resulted in Minister of Telecommunications Siyabonga Cwele missing the end of July deadline he had set for his department to publish a new policy for digital migration. It is Cwele’s core responsibility to lead the implementation of digital migration but his lack of consultation with his counterpart in communications, Faith Muthambi, has apparently slowed down the process.
If the deadline is missed, South Africans will be forced to continue watching television on the old analogue signal, which will not be protected from interruptions. This may leave viewers with poor picture and sound quality.
The ministerial stand-off is in addition to already existing squabbles within the industry over the technology to be included in set-top boxes, which convert the digital signal for older analogue television sets.
Now the ANC, tired of continuing delays over the introduction of digital television, wants to intervene.
Memorandum thrown out
Sources said that, at a recent Cabinet meeting last month, Cwele’s memorandum, which he had drafted detailing how digital migration would be implemented, was thrown out by his colleagues because Muthambi was unhappy about it.
“As soon as the proclamation [by President Jacob Zuma delegating responsibilities to different government departments] was announced, Cwele overnight wrote a Cabinet memo without consulting Muthambi,” said a government source sympathetic to the communications minister.
“Cabinet sent him back to consult with Muthambi,” the source said.
Three government sources have confirmed that relations between Cwele and Muthambi are so strained that a stalemate has developed over implementing digital migration.
Cwele had promised to gazette a digital migration policy by the end of last month but failed, partly because his Cabinet colleagues rejected the memo, two of the government sources said.
Policy disjuncture has been blamed for the tensions between Cwele and Muthambi. Those who support Muthambi said they did not understand why the administration of digital migration was allocated to Cwele’s telecommunications department, although the SABC, which is going to be greatly affected, is under Muthambi’s communications department.
Zuma split the former department of communications into two after the May elections but the decision created confusion about policy direction and regulatory responsibilities.
Cwele, through his spokesperson Siya Qoza, said this week that he and his department are “determined to meet the commitments made in Parliament”.
“As the government, we are committed to doing everything possible to meet the June 2015 digital migration deadline. The broadcasting digital migration policy, which has been subject to extensive public consultation, is being finalised through Cabinet processes,” Qoza said. “Once the policy has been finalised, it will be gazetted and we’ll issue a statement on the implementation plan of the policy.”
Qoza said he was “not aware” of tensions between Cwele and Muthambi.
“In my experience, there are no tensions between the two ministers, but I cannot comment on what goes on in a Cabinet meeting,” he said.
Qoza on Thursday said that he could not get Cwele to respond to questions about the exchange in the Cabinet because he was in another meeting.
Acting Cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams, who also speaks on behalf of Muthambi, denied know-ledge of any turf war between Cwele and Muthambi. Williams said she was unable to comment on Cwele’s Cabinet memo, alleged disagreements between the two ministers or the status of their working relationship. She was only responsible for communicating “the decisions that emerged from each Cabinet [meeting]”, she said.
Although Cabinet ministers approached by the M&G were reluctant to share details of the discussions at the heated meeting, the ANC has expressed concern over the impact the disagreements between the two ministers is having on digital migration.
The head of the ANC communications subcommittee Lindiwe Zulu said that the party would engage the ministers involved to try to find a solution.
“We are worried about the continued delays. We raised this issue many a time,” Zulu said. “All we are saying to ministers is ‘we don’t want to micro-manage you, but we get concerned when this is delaying’.
“How long must we wait for people? They are our comrades, they need to get the things done. We cannot escape this, we have to migrate. It is not like we have a choice.”
Countries that miss next year’s digital migration deadline will no longer be protected against disruptions of the radio waves that are used for analogue television broadcasts.
“If comrades are not finding each other, it is the responsibility of the party to say ‘comrades, let’s talk’. We are going to have our normal [ANC communications subcommittee] meeting and we will engage them,” Zulu said.
“Whatever differences the ministers have, they need to be ironed out soon. We are hoping the ministers will find each other. The industry is also worried. The sooner they [ministers] find each other the better because this is harming the possibilities of the country.”
Although Zulu acknowledged there were differences between Cwele and Muthambi, she rejected suggestions that there was a policy disjuncture between their two departments. She also said she was not aware of a Cabinet decision to reject a memo presented by Cwele.
“As far as I know, minister Cwele is responsible for it [digital migration]. The two ministers are following the policy position of the ANC and decisions by Cabinet.”
Another minister said that there was a need for the presidency to act immediately to resolve the ministerial stand-off before the tiff exploded into something big.
Cwele has promised that his department will announce the date for the digital “switch-on” in the next three months.
Muthambi did not respond to questions by the time of going to print.
The deadline is June next year
South Africa is among the countries that, under the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union, have made a commitment to complete digital migration and switch off analogue television signals by June next year.
Unlike analogue broadcasting, digital broadcasting uses much less bandwidth, is far more efficient and provides better sound and picture quality, among other benefits.
Some South Africans will have to buy set-top boxes, which receive the digital signal and decode it so that it can be viewed on analogue television sets. – Mmanaledi Mataboge