Zimbabwean-born Democratic Alliance MP and shadow communications minister Marian Shinn is no career politician, having joined parliament only after the last general election in 2009. For most of her life, she was involved in journalism and, later, public relations.
Shinn, 62, grew up in a rural part of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), about half way between Bulawayo and South Africa’s Beitbridge border post, attending boarding school in Bulawayo. Straight after school, she landed her first job as a reporter for the city’s Chronicle newspaper.
She left Zimbabwe in 1971 to look for opportunities in Johannesburg — “I had to be somewhere bigger than Bulawayo” — and took a job writing features for the Rand Daily Mail under editor Raymond Louw.
After nearly three years at the Mail, Shinn and her partner — photographer Charlie Ward, who remains her partner 40 years on — set off on an epic road trip around Southern Africa, driving from South Africa to Mozambique, Malawi, the-then Rhodesia and Botswana. They returned when they ran out of money.
Back in South Africa, Shinn worked at a range of papers, including the Sunday Tribune in Durban — a city she says she loathed because of its “colonialist and old-school” thinking — and The Star, the Sunday Express and the Sunday Times in Johannesburg. She quit newspapers in 1982 and joined Terry Murphy’s Systems Publishers, a now-defunct specialist magazine publisher, where she helped launch two magazines and received the first IT journalist of the year award for consumer IT journalism.
Eventually, Shinn moved out on her own, doing freelance writing and gradually getting involved in providing public relations services to technology companies before relocating to Hermanus, a picturesque coastal town 100km from Cape Town, in 1994. “Hermanus was a disaster. We bought a restaurant and lost money.”
That led her back into PR, but the political bug was starting to bite. “I’d been involved politically while in Johannesburg, belonging to a group called the Five Freedoms Forum, which was involved in trying to bridge the communications gap between white and black people.”
The forum, which was founded in 1987, included then-New Nation editor Zwelakhe Sisulu, Sheena Duncan of the Black Sash, Geoff Budlender of the Legal Resources Centre and anti-apartheid activist and cleric Beyers Naudé.
“When we moved to Cape Town, we became involved almost by accident with the local DA branch in Muizenberg,” Shinn recalls. “I was the chairman of the branch and got quite involved.”
She says she was becoming “increasingly aggravated” at the way then-President Thabo Mbeki was “re-racialising the country and dividing it” and wanted to do “something practical” about it.
“Mbeki was bright and understood how economies needed to work, but within two years [of his presidency], I’d had enough. He was charming when he needed to be, but became incredibly destructive. I thought public office might be an option, although I hadn’t had enough on-the-ground experience.”
Nevertheless, Shinn put her name forward to the DA’s 2009 MP selection panel as a way of “raising the flag” for 2014. When the DA won the Western Cape, and many DA leaders went to work for the province rather than becoming MPs, the “bottom feeders moved up, and I got in”.
She found parliament “hugely intimidating” for the first six months. She was appointed as shadow deputy minister in two portfolios — science & technology and tourism — before taking on the science & technology role as shadow minister. “I thoroughly enjoyed science. The whole SKA [Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project] was just building up.”
That wasn’t to last, though, and Shinn was moved into communications a year ago — a “hugely complex and fast-moving portfolio” — taking over from Natasha Michael, who moved to public enterprises.
In the role, Shinn has been highly critical of communications minister Dina Pule, calling on several occasions for President Jacob Zuma to dismiss her over persistent allegations of nepotism and corruption.
But what would Shinn do if the DA was, theoretically speaking of course, to win the next election and she was appointed as communications minister? Would she sell government’s 40% stake in Telkom, for example?
Her answer is surprising. “The DA probably wouldn’t let go of Telkom,” she says. “There needs to be some state involvement to ensure that the areas that are perhaps not profitable are looked after. I’ll probably be criticised by my colleagues, but if you look at telecoms around the world, governments are usually still involved in a small way. But they definitely shouldn’t have the controlling stake.”
She would, however, not have blocked the sale of 20% of Telkom’s equity to Korea’s KT Corp, a deal that cabinet scuppered last year. “That was a huge blow.”
She believes, too, that there needs to a national broadband network that is owned jointly by the private sector and government as a minority shareholder. “The minute government is in control, investors run away. Everybody who can contribute to building a widespread communications backbone must come together to create a national asset, not a state asset.”
As for the SABC, Shinn would shrink it dramatically, selling off its commercial channels, with what’s left being funded by the state to ensure South Africa’s “cultural diversity” is reflected on the airwaves.
Shinn would also ensure radio frequency is “more readily available” to operators and provide access to it to more industry players to encourage competition.
She’d streamline the department of communications, which she says is attempting to play “ICT nursemaid to the nation”.
“There’s a need to cut out the sections of the department that are peripheral to enabling infrastructure,” she says. “I would do a skills audit and find the people that are appropriately skilled and have people reapply for their jobs. We need to attract the best talent, visionary talent and appropriately skilled talent.”
Shinn, who is keen to serve another, final term as an MP after next year’s election before retiring, is, however, highly unlikely to become a cabinet minister given projected voting patterns. So, does she feel she is able to make a difference in the opposition benches?
“I’d like to think that by taking up and driving issues that we do have some steering influence. If anything it’s an influence on state entities not to be too stupid,” she says. “You have to keep hammering away and hope you make a difference in the long term.” — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media