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

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