When Pule goes - TechCentral

When Pule goes

Duncan McLeod

Duncan McLeod

Weekend newspaper reports suggest that President Jacob Zuma is poised to axe his scandal-plagued communications minister, Dina Pule. If so, she’ll be the third communications minister in as many years to be moved out of the crucial portfolio, after Siphiwe Nyanda and Roy Padayachie.

That the department is a mess is an understatement. Following the recent suspension of Rosey Sekese, after a parliamentary committee found she had “misled” it regarding the signing of her performance agreement, it has no director-general. According to those close to the department, the relationship between Pule and Sekese was acrimonious — hardly a recipe for achieving results.

This, and a dearth of skills, means that the department struggles to craft policies and make timely decisions to help guide and grow a constantly changing technology sector.

As if these problems weren’t enough, Pule is facing a probe by the Public Protector into last May’s ICT Indaba in Cape Town. The Sunday Times published details earlier this month of a confidential Werksmans report ordered by MTN, one of the indaba sponsors, which showed that a romantic interest of the minister’s, Phosane Mngqibisa, took a R6m “management fee” for his involvement in the event while Carol Bouwer, the main organiser, received just R2m for her work.

Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj late on Sunday “rejected” the “mischievous rumour” in three separate weekend newspaper reports suggesting that Zuma is poised to sack Pule. That’s hardly a denial. Pule hasn’t dismissed the reports out of hand either, saying she’s focused on her job and, to paraphrase her, serves at the pleasure of the president.

Even without the serious allegations of impropriety, Pule has not done well as minister. She has made little progress with the urgent matters on her plate, including the migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television — SA is now in danger of missing the mid-2015 commitment it made to the International Telecommunication Union to switch off analogue broadcasts, a deadline that should have been easy to meet.

Tied to this, Pule has not yet dealt conclusively with the allocation of radio frequency spectrum that could, according to research by mobile telecoms industry association the GSMA, add more than US$10bn to SA’s GDP between 2015 and 2020. To realise those benefits, SA needs to get a move on with digital migration.

This week, Pule backed away from plans to appeal against a high court judgment in favour of free-to-air broadcaster e.tv. The court ruled in December that Pule had acted unlawfully by instructing that state-owned broadcasting signal distributor Sentech should manage the control system for the set-top boxes consumers will need to receive digital terrestrial television.

Her decision to abandon the appeal is to be welcomed as it would inevitably have led to years of further delays to digital migration at huge cost to potential economic growth. Just why she was so determined in the first place that Sentech manage the system is not clear. I suspect the full story is yet to emerge.

So, despite the (half-hearted) denial by Zuma’s spokesman that Pule is on her way out, everything is pointing to yet another change at the top. If that’s the case, the president needs to appoint a hard worker who understands the industry and the issues it faces, and can deal with them urgently. In short, what is needed is a skilled technocrat, not another purely political deployment.

The mess the department is in is undermining the growth potential of the economy. It must be fixed.  — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media

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