Breathing life back into the ghost province

2009-07-24 00:00

BENEDICT Xolani Dube is the only member of the South African public to have exercised his right to make a submission to the SABS Technical Committee No. 74 on the set-top box decoder for free-to-air digital terrestrial television.

So what?

Well, for Dube, who is passionate about the democratic process, it’s about adding his voice to a development which will affect the lives — and pockets  — of millions of South African television viewers (see box below).

“The introduction of set-top boxes will directly affect eight million viewers,” he says. “It’s not about race or one sector of the population. We all need to talk about it and be part of the process.

“And it’s not just about technical specifications,” he says when I suggest that the contents of the national standard is a little too technical for the minds of average TV watchers. “It’s about affordability, awareness and access.”

Dube clearly relishes the cut and thrust of political and social discourse, casually weaving the ideas of theorists such as sociologist Anthony Giddens into his conversation.

Dube turned 17, he says, during his first year at the University of the Western Cape where he completed an honours degree. At the invitation of former president Thabo Mbeki, Dube was part of the Presidential Youth Working Group.

Dube is now finishing off a master’s degree in economics. “But the main thing”, he says quickly, “is that I’ve never been formally employed. I’m not interested in being employed.”

Quite appropriately, it seems, the outspoken young KZN intellectual now leads the public engagement component of the Durban-based politically non-aligned think-tank known as the Xubera Group.

Dube says his organisation tries to stimulate South Africans to develop their own solutions to social challenges, and to sharpen the critical thinking skills of young people. In the process, he also hopes to build South African pride and unity. “Pride in our country can only be instilled through dialogue, not adverts. But we shy away from dialogue.”

He describes KZN as a “ghost province” when it comes to intellectual engagement, a province which intellectuals leave in order to make a name for themselves.

“It’s for historical and social reasons,” he says of KZN’s poor track record. “Freedom of expression was dead during the period of IFP/ANC conflict. And from a sociological point of view, there’s a strong emphasis, originating in the system of royalty, on respecting elders and not rocking the boat.”

But now, says Dube, the time for open engagement in KZN has come. “With the Jacob Zuma issue behind us, we can begin to engage.”

In 2007, Dube and his group organised the public discussion over Ronald Suresh Roberts’s controversial biography of Thabo Mbeki, Fit to Govern. The event pitted Durban-based political economist Patrick Bond, left-wing activist Percy Ngonyama, former presidential spokesman Bheki Khumalo and Suresh Roberts against each other.

“At the time, people thought I was punting for Thabo,” says Dube. “All I was saying was: here is an opportunity to understand the kind of person he was.”

It was to be the first of many such events.

Earlier this year, Xubera invited another controversial figure — Judge John Hlophe — to share a platform with former Judge Willem Heath and University of Cape Town’s former deputy registrar Paul Ngobeni to discuss the question: “Who killed the living Constitution?” Xubera also launched Raymond Parson’s book Zumanomics: Which way to shared prosperity in South Africa?

Dube says he prefers to have citizens rather than politicians, punting a party line, taking part in the seminars.

“Politicians are not the source of intellectual discussion, but if we don’t have critical thinkers, we will have weak government.”

He believes it’s time for debates in South Africa to move beyond the ANC. “The ANC is not the nation. We need to talk about issues at the heart of the nation. Why is Britain so stable? The prime minister can come and go but the country goes on. They have strong institutions, a strong national agenda.

“We are still sectarian in our approach. We destroy rather than build. We still fight in our corners.”

There’s a need for the National Planning Commission led by Trevor Manuel, says Dube, but it’s supposed to be a non-political institution. “Once you appoint a political leader to an institution in South Africa, you make that a transitional structure.”

For Dube, the Afrikaners’ ideas around nationalism (volkseenheid) and people’s capitalism (volkskapitalisme) could teach the new South Africa a thing or two about national pride, cohesion and the link between culture and economics. “The Afrikaners managed to make the South African flag a national symbol. Today, if you offer a South African two flags — a political party flag and the national South African flag — they will invariably choose a party flag. “I’m not praising them [Afrikaners], just recognising what works and what doesn’t.”

The goal of government is not to give life to people, but to build social cohesion, says Dube. “Our government is failing to interpret global trends,” he says in reference to the leadership style of U.S. president Barack Obama. “Obama’s not ruling; he’s just there to give a humanist picture and some hope to the American people. In South Africa, leadership is highly political. We create untouchables and dictators. The more resourced we are, the more monsters we create.”

Catch the next Xubera-hosted seminar on July 30 at the ICC at 5 pm on the topic: “Architects of Poverty: why Africa’s capitalism needs changing”. Speakers include political economists Moeletsi Mbeki and Patrick Bond, acting Ithala CEO Sipho Shabalala and Nafcoc president Buhle Mthethwa. For more information, contact Dube at 082 352 4277.

Digital migration & set-top boxes: how will it affect you?

. Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) is the process of converting terrestrial television broadcasting (SABC, and M-Net) signals from analogue to digital technology. The BDM policy was approved by cabinet in August, 2008.

. Digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasting started in South Africa on November 1, 2008. The service will be available concurrently with the existing analogue network (dual-illumination period) until November 2011, when the analogue signal is expected to be switched off. The international D-Day for the switch off is 2015.

. The migration has been made necessary by global advances in telecommunications technologies, which enable a more efficient use of radio frequency spectrum, more channels and better quality of picture and sound.

What will you need?

. To receive all the DTT free-to-air services, television owners (including DStv subscribers who wish to receive terrestrial channels and owners of high definition TVs) will have to purchase a set-top box (STB) decoder. This is a receiver that will decode the digital signal to enable the channels to be viewed on your TV.

. The set-top box is not the same as the Multichoice satellite box or the current M-Net set-top box.

. At this stage, having a high-definition (HD) television set does not relieve you of the need for a set-top box. HD relates to screen resolution, not the signal.

. The department of Communications’s Dr Mashilo Boloka announced this week that STBs are expected to be available to buy from 2010.

. It is estimated that the set-top box will cost about R700.

. In August last year, the government announced plans to subsidise households that cannot afford the set-top box. The government estimates that about five million households will need the subsidy, which will be 70% of the retail price. Cabinet has approved funding of R2,45 billion for this purpose through the Universal Service and Access Fund.

. Department of Communications chief director of marketing and communications, Samantha Bloem, told The Witness last month that a public awareness campaign has been developed to ensure the public is informed of the process. She said the “research component” of such a campaign is under way.

. According to a 2008 All Media Products Survey (AMPS), 83,7% of South Africans watch television, with SABC1 recording a weekly viewership of 22 million.

For more information on the digital migration, visit the department of Communication’s website at and click on the “Digital Migration” link.

Politicians are not the source of intellectual discussion, but if we don’t have critical thinkers, we will have weak government.

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