All change in cabinet – but not in ICT
The appointment of a new Minister and Deputy Minister of Communications has both raised and dashed hopes for a new era for the advancement of telecommunications in South Africa. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK looks at where change may and may not come – and why.
Any fan of South African dream football team Kaizer Chiefs will know the feeling: they start off every season with immense hope and promise, and their fans have every expectation they will end the season as champions, or at least with enough silverware in the trophy cabinet to have pleased most of the fans most of the time. By the end of a season littered with disappointment – the one just ended this weekend being a case in point – the fans realise that promise and hope means nothing without results and delivery. Even more ignominiously, it comes a few weeks after the team had been bundled out of a knock-out tournament by a lower-league side.
Siphiwe Nyanda. Pic: Mail & Guardian
So it is with the Department of Communications. Every time we begin a new season, i.e. have a new team in charge appointed by the President, we live in hope that, this time, we will all end up winners. By the end of the season, in which a startling lack of results and very little delivery has left us jaded, cynical and sad, we realise that we have fallen for false promises once again. It is left to the minnows of private enterprise to take on the Department – and beat it, as happened in the courtrooms with regard to licensing – in order for us to see progress.
Ironically, Kaizer Chiefs ended their league season in 3rd place on the very weekend that a new Minister and Deputy Minister of Communications were appointed. Equally ironically, the new Minister of Communications started his working life as a sports reporter. At a risk of stretching the metaphor, the question must be asked whether the new communications regime has a winning instinct, or whether it is just making place for passengers who are being rewarded for long service. Football fans will be painfully aware of the devastating impact such complacency can have on performance.
Starting on a positive note, the new deputy minister, Dina Pule, has a reputation for her no-nonsense approach and her intolerance of mismanagement. She was formerly an MEC in the Mpumalanga provincial government, both for Agriculture and Land Administration and for Safety and Security. By all accounts, she took a practical approach to her roles, and was an effective executive. She was strong on both poverty alleviation and environmental awareness.
She was appointed to the National Working Committee of the ANCE after Jacob Zuma’s triumph in elections for the ANC presidency at Polokwane in December 2007. The Mail & Guardian described her as “a grass-roots activist and former government spin-doctor,” but added that, as “a left-leaning activist, she has been fearless in her criticism of mismanagement and corruption”.
This can only bode well for a more active approach towards the decision-making processes in both the Department and in the regulator, Icasa. The latter, in particular, has dragged is heels on the politically sensitive issue of interconnect charges, which add about R1.25 to the cost of up to half of the cellular phone calls made in South Africa. If the Government wants to underline its pro-poor credentials, there is no better place to start than in slashing the interconnect by a Rand. No other decision can make as much of an impact, as quickly, on the cost-burden of the poor. Because the previous Minister was committed to the concept of managed liberalisation, which in practise required very slow change, this issue was never given priority. A Dina Pule could be just what the country needs in that context.
However, the fact that neither the new minister nor deputy minister has any track record of engagement with the ICT sector in any form indicates that the Department of Communications is once more the beneficiary of a President’s need to find positions for his supporters, rather than finding the right person for the positions. This means a long learning curve, and little action in the short term. It does not necessarily reflect on management, decision-making or policy-making ability, since good advisors could always provide the support structure needed in that regard.
General Siphiwe Nyanda, the new Minister of Communications, brings with him a long track record of military command and coordination in both underground, pre-democracy, and formal, post-apartheid leadership. However, he retired as head of the SA National Defence Force in 2005, and has since been better known as a lobbyist for Jacob Zuma – hence the reward. But would one of the military or security portfolios not have been more appropriate?
That said, He would be the ideal person to lead a national infrastructure roll-out – along with the action required to make that infrastructure meaningful to then population. However, given the glaring absence of any connection with the ICT sector, observers can be forgiven for expecting another passenger appointment, rewarded for past good deeds rather than in the expectation of future delivery.
Promise would lie in the vision he expressed for his role as Chief of the SANDF when he was appointed in 1998. His mission statement, as announced by the ANC on his retirement, had included this line: “The SANDF will become a learning organisation practising continuous improvement in partnership with the nation… the time has come for the SANDF to benchmark against the best.” Replace SANDF with DoC, and you would have a recipe for success.
The danger does exist, however, that we may have a Department that takes its lead from cabinet, rather than showing cabinet the lead, as was the case with the previous communications regime. The activist and ‘Zuma-camp’ credentials of the new incumbents indicates a left-oriented approach that probably means that there will not be an aggressive drive towards the further liberalisation of telecommunications.
There are bright spots in the Cabinet: the new Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, formerly deputy minister in the dti, is a fierce proponent of a stronger role by the Competition Commission (see his most recent speech on the topic). Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom is both wise and pragmatic in that role. As Minister of Land Affairs in the Mandela cabinet and Deputy Minister of Science and Technology since 2004, he has been an effective policymaker and bridge-builder. cooperation with these related ministries would be no bad thing for the DoC.
World Wide Worx has expressed the requirement for the Zuma presidency to treat telecommunications as a national priority by appointing a Minister who will champion the cause of ICT, rather than be a reflection of vested interests. The appointment of General Nyanda does not meet this criterion. The campaign for a National Broadband Strategy, to take one issue, may not fall on deaf ears, but is unlikely to be met with great enthusiasm by this Ministry. In many Government circles, broadband is viewed as the province of the privileged rather than the force for economic advancement that it has been in many countries. And, while lip service has been paid to the importance of ICT, this importance was never given effect by the Mbeki casbinet. Given the credentials of the new leadership, there is little to indicate, so far, that this perspective will change dramatically.
Instead, as we saw with the previous Ministry, it is likely that state involvement in telecommunications will continue to be championed as a means of holding off liberalisation rather than of promoting it. Nevertheless, the momentum of growing competition is such that the sector will thrive despite the Department of Communications, rather than because of the Department.