Sorting out SA’s tech issues

2014-06-10 00:00

THE more things change, the more they stay the same — at least they do if you’re the South African government and, instead of promoting stability and accountability in the job-creating technology sector, you opt to split the existing communications ministry in two, remove a minister who’s beginning to find his feet in the role and guarantee further delays to critical projects.

South Africa’s new cabinet is full of curious and vexing appointments, and the communications portfolio is an exemplary example. The department will now have two arms, one that will house the SABC and GCIS — among others — and have the so-called Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) reporting to it, leading some commentators to label it an Orwellian “department of information”.

Faith Muthambi, once the municipal manager at the Makhado Municipality until she was suspended on charges of fraud, will head this new department. Her only information communications technology (ICT) experience is as a member of Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications. That said, DA shadow communications minister Marian Shinn has spoken well of her and that’s not an endorsement to sniff at.

Meanwhile, a new department for telecommunications and postal services has been created. As if the new department’s anachronistic title isn’t alarming enough, the former minister of state security, Siyabonga Cwele, has been chosen to take the reins. Aside from having a convicted drug dealer as an ex-wife, Cwele was (in)famously hawkish about the controversial Protection of State Information Bill.

Perhaps I’m being too critical of the new ministers. After all, they’ve yet to prove themselves capable or otherwise in their new portfolios. But regardless of whether or not their appointments have positive effects for the technology sector, one thing is certain: there are going to be further delays to pressing issues.

Outgoing communications minister Yunus Carrim — who took the reins from the wholly nightmarish Dina Pule — had a valuable head start grappling with the issues South Africa faces and had demonstrated his willingness to confront them head on, even if it meant treading on the toes of the powerful in the process.

His critical eye and good work ethic will be sorely missed, and his departure from the department may please his critics, but it will indubitably have a negative impact on the department — if only because of the time his replacements need to acclimatise. New ministers need six months to a year to get to grips with their new portfolios, and this is time the local ICT sector can ill afford to give anyone, let alone those tasked with addressing the sector’s numerous woes.

Pressing issues facing the sector include finalising the move to digital terrestrial television and the licensing of radio frequency spectrum — both of which have been hamstrung by industry infighting and insufficiently clear-cut regulatory frameworks, and both of which affect South Africa’s ability to increase mobile connectivity for its citizens — and figuring out how the country is to meet its overly ambitious goal of providing universal access to broadband by the end of the decade.

Then there’s the issue of the SABC, which has come to look like little more than a home for Jacob Zuma loyalists and the ruling party’s media mouthpiece and lapdog. Never mind the fact that Icasa, which is meant to be independent and is already criticised by many quarters as being insufficiently aggressive, now has a government overlord.

In the meantime, the lack of confidence in government to meet the needs of South African consumers has resulted in the residents of Johannesburg suburb Parkhurst taking matters into their own hands and appointing private fibre company Vumatel to provide fibre-to-the-home services to residents.

It’s baffling and infuriating that the Communications Department has been divided, while the private ICT sector in South Africa is tending towards consolidation. It’s hard not to think that these public sector divisions will only create confusion and create room for buck-passing between the new departments.

Where it can operate autonomously, the private sector has learnt that it shouldn’t wait on government. But, unfortunately, certain tasks, particularly regulatory ones, rely on the public sector. With its latest shuffle it appears the South African government has again underestimated the importance of ICT for growing South Africa’s economy, keeping it a shining technological light on the continent and empowering its people. It’s not quite criminal, but it’s certainly tragic.

— Memeburn.

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