Zuma leaves ICT policy in a vacuum

More than six weeks after the general election, there is still no clarity on how the ICT sector will be governed. By Duncan McLeod.

Duncan-McLeod-180-profileIt’s been more than six weeks since the election and nearly a month since President Jacob Zuma stunned the information and communications technology industry by dumping his hardworking communications minister, Yunus Carrim, and splitting the communications portfolio in two.

Since then, there has been no clarity on how the ICT sector will be governed. Promised media briefings have not happened. There hasn’t been so much as a statement attempting to explain how the new structure will work.

The impression is that Zuma’s decision to split communications into a department of telecommunications and postal services and a new department of communications — what critics have dubbed the “department of propaganda” — was made without proper consultation and with insufficient planning and thought.

What else could explain the fact that the government is still not able to answer the basic question of whether the crucial digital terrestrial television migration project will be managed by telecoms and postal services, headed by former state security minister Siyabonga Cwele, or communications, led by former Makhado (Louis Trichardt) municipal manager Faith Muthambi?

That something as important as who will look after digital migration, which represents a crucial first step in improving broadband penetration in underserviced parts of South Africa, wasn’t discussed before this decision was made is an indictment on the Zuma administration.

In his state of the nation address on Tuesday evening, Zuma needed to provide much needed clarity for the ICT sector. Instead, he dedicated just 41 words of his 4 500-word speech to the subject.

“We will expand, modernise and increase the affordability of information and communications infrastructure and electronic communication services, including broadband and digital broadcasting,” he said glibly. “Cabinet adopted South Africa Connect, our broadband policy and strategy, in December last year to take this mission forward.”

That was it.

There was not a word on how his decision to split the communications ministry will work in practice. Will legislation be amended to make the situation workable, something legal experts say must first happen before any progress can be made? How will the inevitable conflicts and tensions between these two new centres of power in the government be avoided, or at least managed?

Experience from the past decade, when former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin set himself up as a second telecoms minister in opposition to the bumbling Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, suggests it won ’t work well.

What of the future of regulator Icasa, whose biggest responsibility involves regulating the telecoms sector, but which now reports to Muthambi’s department? What was Zuma thinking putting it there in the first place?

Talk is that Icasa will soon report to Cwele’s department. That would be a welcome development, but it again demonstrates that Zuma (and his political advisers) did not think through the implications of the changes before announcing them.

President Jacob Zuma (image: World Economic Forum)

President Jacob Zuma (image: World Economic Forum)

This is a decision made on the spur of the moment in an apparent bid to address a perceived need to improve the administration’s public image — and is no way to create the certainty the sector needs.

One can only hope that some good will come out of the disorder. There is talk that a new ICT ministry could be in the works, with entities such as Broadband Infraco (now under public enterprises) and even the State IT Agency (public service and administration) reporting to it. Some positive developments might flow from this if the changes are implemented judiciously. But these are structural changes that should be mulled over carefully, not rushed into.

Since he assumed the presidency in 2009, Zuma has failed the ICT sector, naming five communications ministers in that time, many of whom were ill-suited to the job. This turnover created enormous instability, which translated to poor and damaging decision-making, delays to crucial projects and enormous uncertainty for investors.

The outlook is no less bleak.

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

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