Communications – what is Zuma thinking?

May 26th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT

 

What is President Jacob Zuma thinking?  Yunus Carrim is out and former security minister Siyabonga Cwele is in the hot seat to manage South Africa’s telecommunications, in a new department called the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services.

Before the election the communications industry had generally expected that Carrim would continue as the minister of communications. When Carrim, on frequent occasions, answered questions about his position, he said that it would  be up to the President and that he may not  be reappointed. He must have known something  that the industry did not know or even anticipated.  Even in the days leading up to the elections there were repeated calls for Zuma to keep Carrim in the communications ministry as he was the first in a row of failed appointments that caused delays in the digital migration process to come up with a workable broadband policy, and that in a few short months.  Now a new minister, who does not have any apparent experience in communication, has to drive the way forward.  Will  he be up to it and will he have the right support?  One is mindful of the controversy around the drector general of communications, Rosey Sekese – from suspension to being locked out of her office – and that during the reign of at least two ministers.

Siyabonga Cwele

Siyabonga Cwele

Carrim moved quickly to address many of the problems bedevilling the communications portfolio when he took over the reins last year. But he was not able to resolve some of the more complex issues in the short time he was in office. Why move  him out of the cabinet? Were his views and actions too independent?

Another surprising and incomprehensible move is the creation of a new communications ministry which will be responsible for overarching communications policy and strategy, information dissemination and publicity as well as branding the country abroad. In his announcement on Sunday, Zuma said that improved communication and marketing will promote an informed citizenry and also assist the country to promote investments, economic growth and job creations. The new communications ministry will be looking after the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), the SABC, Government Communication and Information Systems, Brand SA and the Media Development and Diversity Agency. The Communications Department will be headed by Faith Muthambi.

As for ICASA — how independent will it be? It is a fact that the regulator was bossed around by the Department of Communications. The question is now whether, under a new department and new minister,  ICASA will operate independently and, above all, be allocated the budget to do its job as one would expect from an independent regulator?

The decision to bring Naladi Pandor back to head up science and technology is another significant move,  and one that will resonate well with the scientific community.

Cwele must now address some very big issues — and urgently —  including finding a resolution to the impasse between MultiChoice and e.tv, South Africa’s two biggest commercial television broadcasters, which are at each other’s throats over whether the digital terestrial televison set-top box should contain an access control system.

MultiChoice argues that set-top box access control will allow e.tv and other broadcasters a free ride into pay television. The dispute between the two broadcasters is delaying the country’s migration to digital TV.  It  is also holding up the “digital dividend” – the spectrum  initiative which will be freed up when broadcasters move off analogue technology.

The GSMA, a global body that represents most of the world’s mobile operators, has recently warned that South Africa’s delay in awarding the digital dividend to broadband operators could cost the country billions of rand in lost GDP in the coming years.

The new telecommunication minister has plenty on his plate. He must address a dysfunctional Post Office; and the Universal Service & Access Agency of South Africa, the organisation meant to provide funds for communications access in rural areas, which  has for years been beset by allegations of maladministration.

In the next weeks or even months we are in for an interesting time. Cwele would be well advised to consult with Yunus Carrim if he wants to make the right moves quickly.

 

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