A failed minister - TechCentral

A failed minister

Duncan McLeod

Duncan McLeod

Parliament’s joint committee on ethics and members’ interests has begun a behind-closed-doors probe into allegations that the communications minister’s alleged boyfriend, Phosane Mngqibisa, benefited financially from the sponsorship of 2012’s ICT Indaba in Cape Town.

The committee reportedly has thousands of pages of evidence against Dina Pule, who is already facing a detailed probe by the public protector, which is expected to publish the findings of its investigations within the next two weeks.

This week, the minister upped the ante, telling a press conference — held at an upmarket Johannesburg hotel and organised by officials from her department — that senior investigative journalists from the Sunday Times were engaged in a smear campaign against her. She claimed that one of the journalists had attempted to blackmail her, but failed to provide evidence to back up her claim.

That the minister is fighting for her political career is beyond doubt. If she is guilty of any of the allegations published in the Sunday Times and elsewhere, President Jacob Zuma must fire her. The allegations are so serious that she should arguably already have been suspended pending the outcome of the public protector’s investigation.

Ultimately, though, Zuma should already have acted against the minister on the basis of her ability to do the job alone. In the 18 months she’s led the communications portfolio, she’s dealt successfully with few of the issues that need her urgent attention if the sector is to prosper.

Let’s take South Africa’s now-farcical migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television. Pule’s decision to hand management of the control system in digital set-top boxes to state-owned Sentech, unilaterally taking it away from free-to-air broadcasters, has cost the country another lengthy delay it could ill afford. The control system will be used, among other things, to stop the resale of government-subsidised set-top boxes, which are used to receive digital broadcasts, outside the country’s borders.

E.tv challenged Pule in the high court, which found in December that she had acted unlawfully. More than four months later, a decision on the way forward is yet to be communicated. What makes the situation even more laughable is that Sentech admitted recently that it didn’t ask to manage the control system in the first place.

The importance of speedy digital migration cannot be overstated, not so much because it will introduce more competition in the broadcasting industry — which is desirable, of course — but because it will free up vast tracts of radio frequency spectrum that are well suited for delivering next-generation wireless broadband services, especially to parts of the country that are not currently served. Given that there is a well-defined link between broadband penetration and GDP growth, each delay to broadcasting migration comes at the expense of the economy and jobs.

There has also been no visible progress in making available spectrum around 2,6GHz, which mobile operators are desperate for access to so that they can expand their fourth-generation (4G) broadband networks without compromising the quality of their 2G and 3G systems. Allocation of this spectrum should have happened years ago and Pule’s lack of urgency in dealing with it is worrying.

And let’s not forget about the minister’s damaging intervention at last year’s Telkom annual general meeting, where she sparked a crisis on the telecoms operator’s board. Government indecision on Telkom continues to worry investors: more than six months after Pule supposedly presented a strategy to cabinet, nothing concrete has been produced.

We don’t know yet whether Pule is corrupt. The investigations against her will determine that. What is clear is that she’s failing at her job as communications minister.  — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media

  • Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Follow him on Twitter
  • This column is also published in the Financial Mail

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