Pretoria, we have a problem

Those celebrating Yunus Carrim's downfall this week were very much in the minority. By Duncan McLeod.

Duncan-McLeod-180-profileWhat was the president thinking? Last Sunday, Jacob Zuma sent shockwaves through South Africa’s technology industry by dumping his hardworking communications minister, Yunus Carrim — arguably the most competent person to fill the portfolio since the 1990s — and splitting the ministry in two.

The department of communications will be transformed into a kind of information department — critics say it has all the hallmarks of a department of propaganda — with the SABC, government’s communications arm GCIS, Brand South Africa, the Media Diversity & Development Agency and, troublingly, communications regulator Icasa reporting into it.

Already, many South Africans hold the view that the SABC, which remains the primary news and information source for millions of people, has been captured by its political masters, much as it was by the Nats under apartheid. Placing it under an information ministry, alongside GCIS, will do little to change the view that it has become a state rather than a public broadcaster.

Then there’s a new department of telecommunications & postal services (it has such a pre-Internet era ring to it, doesn’t it?), which will be headed by the former state security minister, Siyabonga Cwele. Cwele is best known for championing the contentious Protection of State Information Bill, better known as the secrecy bill. Will the world of modern telecoms, built as it is on openness and the free flow of information and ideas, square with Cwele’s worldview? Will he seek greater government control over the Internet in South Africa? Time will tell, but at face value his appointment is troubling.

Even if Cwele turns out to be a competent telecoms minister, the instability and delays that Zuma’s changes will cause to the sector are intolerable.

In five years, the president has had no fewer than five ministers in this crucial portfolio. There was the big-spending Siphiwe Nyanda, who squandered millions of rand in taxpayers’ money on luxury hotels and cars before being sent to parliament as Zuma’s advisor. (Has anyone seen him since?) Nyanda was followed by the affable but ultimately ineffective Roy Padayachie, who was redeployed to public service & administration before his death in 2012. Then came the walking disaster, Dina Pule, whose crookedness while in office was exposed in great detail by the Sunday Times.

Carrim was a godsend by comparison. He ran a tight ship, would not brook stupidity, and set and stuck (for the most part) to ambitious deadlines. He also made enemies among vested industry interests, most notably MultiChoice, which attacked him in full-page newspaper advertisements over his policy on set-top box control for digital TV. He was also critical of the big mobile operators.

But those celebrating Carrim’s downfall this week were very much in the minority. As the SOS Coalition, whose members include trade union federation Cosatu and the Freedom of Expression Institute, noted in a statement this week, Zuma has done the opposite of “creating stability in a ministry that has been beset by scandal and the turbulence caused by five ministers in five years”.

President Jacob Zuma

President Jacob Zuma

So, now communications has been split in two, with Cwele looking after a dysfunctional Post Office and a telecoms sector in urgent need of policy certainty, and the little-known Faith Muthambi running the overhauled communications department.

Assuming the split in ministries is even possible without significant legislative changes — legal experts are warning it isn’t — the fact that it will lead to further delays in critical projects is inexcusable. If Zuma was convinced of a need for change, he should have ensured it was done over a period of years to minimise disruption to the sector.

His decision appears to be knee-jerk, done more to address a perceived need to enhance the government’s — and presumably the president’s — image in the eyes of voters than to fix the significant policy bottlenecks holding back telecoms and broadband.

South Africa now won’t make its commitment to meet the mid-2015 deadline to switch off analogue television, it will not allocate the spectrum needed to improve our poor broadband penetration, and a long-overdue overhaul of legislation governing the sector will almost certainly be significantly delayed.

In short, we have a big problem.

  • Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Find him on Twitter
  • This column was first published in the Sunday Times

Share this article

  • Marcan

    “In short, we have a big problem.” A massive understatement.
    And look at the picture, the person behind all this.

    The main issue is a dysfunctional, seriously immature democracy. An electorate that is so poorly informed, easily misled and manipulated.

  • BritinSA

    I think his dispute with Multichoice had a significant impact on his removal.

    The threat of unbundling and calling Lackofchoice for what it is, likely caused high-level approaches to Zuma’s advisors to remove this thorn in their side.

    I’m obviously thumb-sucking here (like AMCU’s advisors!)

  • v_3

    Sometimes I wonder if the ZANC is still trying to “bring the economy to its knees”.

    Judging by deeds, not words,…

  • Master4real

    Carrim failed when it comes to DTT. We need someone who will take decisive actions. Lets not judge the new minister before he even start his job, lets give him some time to judge his performance.

  • David H

    An interesting take on what could eventually come back and bite J.Z. in the ass, IMHO.
    In whom will the real power be vested, Cwele or Faith Muthambi? If Cwele is the overriding dominant factor will we have a scenario of ‘Control the media and you control the masses?’
    Should one be relieved by Ms. Shinn’s opinion?
    DA MP Marian Shinn said that Faith Muthambi has extensive ICT knowledge through her work on the portfolio committee.

    “I found her to be a person of integrity. She has a sharp legal mind
    and is disinclined to take explanations and glossy presentations at face
    value,” said Shinn. “She will do well as Minister of Communications and
    I wish her well.”

    Unhappily, looking at J.G.Z.’s expression, what springs to mind is “WTF do I care??”

  • Bananaboy

    “What was he thinking?” Nothing!! He doesn’t think in the civilized sense of the word. He’s a fool, but a fool with millions of ignorant peasant followers who haven’t got the savvy to comprehend what they’ve caused with their squandered vote… I tire of reading the same old stories about this lot & I feel for the journos too…nothing new under the sun, just more affirmations of the direction this country is heading.

  • sp4wn

    Zuma – thinking? Seriously???

  • Davebee

    Should carry the heading thusly: PRETORIA WE HAVE A ZUMA.
    That the majority of voters in South Africa would stand in long lines to vote into power AGAIN, this semi-literate, together with his ragingly corrupt crony’s leaves me speechless.
    Please also note the thundering voice of approval that greeted that thug of Africa, Mugabe at the Union Buildings when Zuma got his personal keys to the state Gravy Train last month…it says it all I think.

  • Chris

    You got to split departments in order to get all your friends into parliament.

  • Dirk de Vos

    The immediate and obvious problem with the split ministries is this: Our constitution requires that there be a number of independent bodies – also known as chapter 9 institutions. Amongst these is the public protector but several others including the Human Rights Commission, Auditor General and so on. One of these must be “an independent body to regulate broadcasting”. There are several formal requirements for independence but one of them is that they do not report to a ministery but to parliament directly. Prior to the creation of ICASA, such a body did exist, namely the IBA which was fused with the then telecommunications authority in the late 90’s.

    This fusing of the two bodies made sense due to convergence and so on. But it created a constitutional/legal problem. ICASA in respect of telecommunications is not formally independent but, in respect of broadcasting, it should be.

    A generous interpretation of the split described would be that Post & Telecommunications deals with the pipes and Communications deals with content. Except then that ICASA, whose mandate is mostly to deal with telecommunications, is part of the Department of Communications. In respect of content (very broadly defined), it is supposed to be independent and therefore not reporting to the minister.

  • Ryan

    How much a bet that most in this power circle don’t use wifi or mobile internet unless its set up for them or interactions on internet delegated to the PA………….i.e. no frame of reference

  • Karen

    “Postal” services – yep, it’s enough to send anyone into a blind rage.

  • Anakin Stealthwalker

    Terrestrial and sattelite tv has already become obsolete – by the time DTT arrives in it’s ‘approved format’ nobody would want it. Fibre is going to replace DTT so fast DTT will be dead before it’s even started. The old paradigm of broadcasters telling their viewers when to watch what is also dead, ‘on demand’ is already starting to replace the old worn-out model.

  • Leoni Watson

    Look at those eyes. He doesn’t give a sh*t what we think!

  • Paul Slabbert

    Love delays it gives me more time to get into the game LOL

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