Full inbox greets new tech minister
South Africa has a new communications minister, its seventh since 1994. Will he make progress where his predecessors have failed? By Duncan McLeod.
Will he be any better than his predecessors? That’s hard to know. But the fact that he’s a card-carrying member of the South African Communist Party doesn’t auger well for a sector that thrives not on central control but on the very opposite: openness, competition and deregulation.
And his master’s degree in sociology, from the University of Warwick, isn’t exactly the sort of qualification that would ordinarily stand one in good stead to direct a complex, rapidly changing sector. One hopes he appoints a strong technical adviser, and one who is much less of loose cannon than Pule’s was. He also needs to impress on Zuma that he needs a strong director-general — someone with extensive experience working in the private sector and someone who can clean up what has become a dysfunctional department.
The technology sector has been begging for a competent minister for years, one who is prepared to take the bold decisions that will unlock billions in new investment for broadband and grow the economy.
There are some positives about the new minister. He seems untouched by scandal. An MP since 1994, he’s relatively unknown in the technology space. But those who have worked with him describe him as a hard worker with an attention to detail and a desire to get things done. That, perhaps, outweighs the ideological baggage that Carrim may or may not bring to his decision making as communications minister. If he can get things done quickly, that will certainly be a major step forward over his predecessors who favoured endless industry indabas and colloquia but who never actually got around to making the big decisions. Of course, if he brings woolly socialist thinking to the portfolio — the renationalisation of Telkom or a central role for the state as competitor in the sector — then any good he does through making quick policy decisions could be rapidly undone.
Carrim’s inbox is already overflowing. He needs to move rapidly on several fronts. Arguably the most important of these is getting a move on with digital migration. South Africa has fallen far behind many emerging-market peers in moving terrestrial television broadcasters off analogue and onto more efficient digital signals.
The new minister cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors if the country is to meet its commitment to the International Telecommunication Union to switch off analogue broadcasts by June 2015. He does not have the time to entertain every industry lobbyist who knocks on his door, and there’ll be plenty of them knocking.
Smart, fast decisions are needed now.
Tied to digital migration is the need to open up radio frequency spectrum so that wireless broadband operators can deploy 4G networks. Again, tough decisions will have to be made given the scarcity of spectrum. Which operators should get access? The incumbents such as Vodacom and MTN argue that only they have deep enough pockets to afford to build networks that are truly national in scope. Prospective new entrants — the bigger Internet service providers are among them — argue that the incumbents have a cosy cartel and the only way of bringing down prices for consumers is by opening up spectrum to new players.
Clearly, Carrim must maximise competition and investment at the same time. Figuring out how to balance the two is arguably his most important job as communications minister.
Another big challenge on Carrim’s plate is figuring out what to do about Telkom. As a communist, he’s unlikely to do what should have been done years ago — that is, sell the 40% stake government still holds in the company — but will he want to play a more active role in the company’s affairs? Telkom has its strongest management team in years. They need Carrim’s support, not an interfering hand.
Not surprisingly, expectations in the industry and among consumers for real delivery from the department of communications have hit rock bottom. Perhaps a hard-working communist with a sociology degree will surprise us all. Here’s holding thumbs.
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Engage with him on Twitter
- This column was first published in the Sunday Times