The council of Icasa: towards an inclusive digital society

Icasa councillors (front) Thembeka Semane, Botlenyana Mokhele, Rubben Mohlaloga (Chairperson) and Nomonde Gongxeka-Seopa, (back) Paris Mashile, Peter Zimri, Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, Willington Ngwepe and Palesa Kadi. (Photo: Wikus de Wet)

Icasa councillors (front) Thembeka Semane, Botlenyana Mokhele, Rubben Mohlaloga (Chairperson) and Nomonde Gongxeka-Seopa, (back) Paris Mashile, Peter Zimri, Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, Willington Ngwepe and Palesa Kadi. (Photo: Wikus de Wet)

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) council is the highest decision-making body of the communications authority and comprises nine members, including the chairperson. In terms of the Icasa Act, No. 13 of 2000, Icasa councillors are appointed by the Minister of Communications on the recommendation of the national assembly based on some principles, most important is that there is participation by the public in the nomination process. The rest of the process is transparent and open, after publication of a shortlist of candidates for appointment is released.

The council serves a dual role that includes regulatory leadership and thus councillors are on the board, as well as full-time at the Sandton premises. Persons nominated to the council are essentially nominated by their peers and must be committed to fairness, freedom of expression, openness and accountability.

The complete council must be representative of a broad cross-section of the population of the country and possess suitable qualifications, expertise and experience in the fields of, among others, broadcasting and telecommunications policy, engineering, technology, frequency band planning, law, marketing, journalism, entertainment, education, economics, business practice and finance or any other related expertise or qualifications.

With a Master’s in visual history and many other qualifications and accolades from her early years in the Eastern Cape, Councillor Palesa Kadi learnt how communities can be educated and entertained using visual images. Her tenure at various public institutions such as radio stations and the SABC has equipped her with the skills necessary for civic engagement in the broadcasting sector.

Kadi has been sitting on the council of Icasa since 2017, and is responsible for the reviews of the regulations on sports broadcasting, ensuring compliance to laws that do not infringe upon the right to access of information, even when that information is a sports of national interest, and may enrich society through social cohesion, for instance.

At times, private broadcasters obtain rights to broadcast sports fixtures that may be of national interest but there is limited access for the public, who may lack the necessary hardware to decode certain signals.

With access to information comes the possibility that access to information that may be detrimental to society. At Icasa, Palesa advocates for cybersecurity, ensuring safe use of telecommunications and the internet by the public. As the various forms of telecommunications technology converge around the Internet, the public should remain aware that although there are institutions created for their protection, the responsibility remains with them to educate themselves with regarding the use of their particulars on the internet.

The consumer Affairs Division is responsible for educating consumers about the role and functions of Icasa.  The division is also responsible for educating the public about the importance of understanding their rights and the procedures for lodging complaints. 

The communication authority acts as a watchdog of the telecommunications, broadcasting and

postal sectors.  The authority also receives complaints from the public about services provided by telecommunications, broadcasting and postal licensees.

The apartheid government had an intentional agenda to divide through segregation in order to conquer. Technology is aiding in the redress of this issue by providing a means by which people, communities and families can be linked, creating access to freedom of communication and information.

Providers of telecommunications services and products responsibility to treat their consumers with respect and be able to address all complaints lodged with them with a reasonable time period i.e. 14 working days.  It is also the duty of South Africans to exercise this right, and insist on being given a reference number from service providers when a complaint has been reported.  The reference number will further assist ICASA when such complaint is escalated to it for investigation.

Icasa facilitates the resolution of these complaints and at times refers them to the Complaints and Compliance Committee (CCC) for adjudication.. The CCC is an independent committee of the council headed by a judge of the high court.

Councillor Botlenyana Mokhele has served almost half of her intended four-year tenure at Icasa. She is currently working on a number of consumer protection regulations and those aimed at addressing the high cost of communications i.e. data and voices services.

#DataMustFall

The issue of high data charges has been on Icasa’s radar for a while. There is a skewed relationship between the public and the telecommunications industry: consumers in the lower Living Standards Measures who buy small bundles of data pay a per-megabyte rate that is higher than consumers with the financial means to purchase large packages of “bulk data”.

This leads to the realisation that there is no standard practice or regulation for data packages, and as a result the poor are charged unreasonably high prices per megabyte. In a South Africa with high inequality levels, commodification of access to the internet is an infringement of the poor’s constitutional right to access information, and this remains a challenge that Icasa needs to address.

The recent public hearings on the End-User and Subscriber-Service-Charter-Regulations is a promising development in the protection of consumer rights. Three regulations were tabled: the pricing of in-bundle as opposed to out-of-bundle packages; the expiration of data bundles within one month has been reviewed, with promises of retaining data beyond one year; and educating the public with regards to regulations and their rights.

At a basic level Icasa seeks to deal with the cost of communication, which in the Fourth Industrial Revolution can determine who are the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

Councillor Nomonde Gongxeka-Seopa was sworn in a few weeks ago along with a batch of new councillors that has seen the council occupied by a majority of women. With a background in public broadcasting, having worked both in front and behind the scenes for various productions and youth development activations, Gongxeka-Seopa has already volunteered to assist in one committee that create accessibility to information for persons living with disabilities.

As an institution with a mandate to help create an inclusive digital society, ensuring that all South Africans have access to a wide range of high quality communications services at affordable prices is key, especially for vulnerable persons. To cross the digital divide requires more than just access to technology and services, but how technology is being used in ways that benefit society.

Through research, training and access to quality information, a society can be transformed into a better version of itself. It seems throughout history it is the ability to send and receive messages that changes the destiny of civilisations.

The council of Icasa ensures that there is increased connectivity and good relations between the public and the various telecommunications service providers. The ability to broadcast messages of national interest can inspire growth and change towards an inclusive digital society. ‘One significant objective of the regulatory environment, among others, is to address the digital divide experienced by the masses of our people, most certainly for those who have no access to Internet and/or broadband services, and it is our duty to ensure that happens’ concludes Gongxeka-Seopa.

Sfiso Atomza Buthelezi