Khumbudzo Ntshavheni has notched up one or two successes on her watch – most notably the licensing of spectrum and the decision, in effect, to shelve the government’s planned wholesale open-access network, or Woan. But the communications minister now risks making a hash of things in several key areas.
One of these is digital migration; another is the Post Office.
The minister’s determination to get the big things done, and quickly, is admirable – and is certainly a welcome departure from many of her predecessors in the portfolio, who dawdled along as if they had all the time in the world while South Africa slipped further and further down the global ICT rankings.
But Ntshavheni’s insistence on getting analogue switch-off done by the end of the month (that’s next week!) could come back to haunt her. It’s also not going to happen. She is making many enemies in the broadcasting sector, who accuse her publicly (and privately) of being anti-poor and belligerent in her approach to the sector.
To be certain, South Africa needs to get a move on with digital migration. It was meant to happen a decade ago – if the original deadline agreed to by the Thabo Mbeki administration had been met (yes, that’s how long this has been going on for). That we’re seven years past the date government agreed to with the International Telecommunication Union to get the project done is disgraceful and says a lot about this government’s (in)ability to project-manage complex national undertakings.
So, the fact that Ntshavheni appears to be pushing ahead, albeit bulldozer-like, insisting that the deadlines will be met, should be seen as a welcome change. Except, in her determination not to let down her boss, President Cyril Ramaphosa, and to deliver meaningful projects like digital migration in time for the ANC’s elective conference in December, she has started to ride roughshod over key broadcasting industry players.
eMedia Holdings, which owns e.tv, is upset with her – and very publicly so. It’s taken her to court, saying analogue switch-off at the end of March will harm its business. It argues that government has failed to deliver set-top boxes into millions of indigent people’s homes as promised, and that, as a result, millions of poor people could soon be cut off from their only means of watching television.
The SABC is quiet about the impact on its business – unlike eMedia, it’s difficult for the public broadcaster to take the minister to court, or even to criticise her in public. But industry data shows that in provinces where the SABC has switched off its analogue signals (at the insistence of the minister), its viewership has plummeted. This has benefited e.tv, which continues to broadcast on analogue in all provinces — for now. SABC executives cannot be happy about this situation. (The SABC declined to comment recently when approached by TechCentral for comment on the viewership data.)
The fault for this mess lies with government, and Ntshavheni’s many predecessors who failed to deliver the millions of set-top boxes originally promised. The poorest of the poor will be hit hard. And if analogue broadcasts are switched off unilaterally, free-to-air broadcasters, including the SABC and e.tv, will feel big pain.
The high court is expected to hand down judgment as soon as next week in the eMedia case. A judgment against the minister could prove highly problematic for her. A delay in digital migration will hurt her, and the ANC, politically. It will also harm the telecommunications industry, which now has access – following communications regulator Icasa’s recent auction of spectrum – to frequency bands still being used for both analogue and digital broadcasts. A delay in repurposing that spectrum will mean a delay in improving broadband coverage in South Africa and a delay in further reductions in the price of data – again, bad for consumers and bad for the ANC.
A delay – six months, or maybe even a year – to sort out the set-top box debacle to the satisfaction of the broadcasters probably could have avoided the crisis that is now threatening to envelop the minister. Instead, she appears to be ignoring the problem, hoping that by charging forward regardless, it will somehow go away. Perhaps it will eventually, the high court willing, but it doesn’t demonstrate good political leadership.
The minister has also been showing poor leadership in other areas recently. She angrily spurned an offer by former Post Office CEO Mark Barnes to buy into the troubled postal service, reportedly accusing him – without any apparent foundation – of deliberately running the company into the ground when he was CEO so that he could later return and buy it for a pittance. What nonsense!
This does no one any favours, and certainly not the Post Office, which, without state support, would have gone bankrupt years ago. The company should be privatised, but won’t be, because somehow it remains “strategic” to government, according to the ANC. It could deliver modern technology and e-commerce to rural areas (hah, hah!) or be the bank for the masses – as if it would somehow be better than the commercial banks at serving poor customers. Why would it be? Patrice Motsepe’s TymeBank is already doing much more for the mass market than any state-owned post bank ever would.
The Post Office should be sold, and Ntshavheni, instead of dismissing ideas like Barnes’s in a fit of pique, should at least listen and engage. If she doesn’t come up with a better plan, the Post Office will not survive without billions of rand in bailouts every few years. That is simply not sustainable — the national fiscus is too stressed. Sell it, and set the rules by which it will operate (not too many rules, mind you) and let it compete on its merits.
Firstly, who will pay for the free data? The minister wants 10GB/month for every citizen and has hinted that future spectrum assignments for 5G might be tied to this. But forcing companies to give away the product they sell is called socialism. From Venezuela to Cuba, it doesn’t work.
Secondly, the free e-mail plan makes zero sense. The minister wants the Post Office involved to develop “security certificates” that will underpin the platform. Other state-owned bodies, including the State IT Agency and domain-name authority Zadna, will help develop it. What sane South African would rely on an e-mail service provided by the government, and depend on a Post Office that struggles to deliver a parcel on time (if at all)? And would anyone trust the government not to snoop on these e-mail accounts? No, most people will continue to flock to Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Outlook if they need a free e-mail address. So, why reinvent the wheel, at great expense? To what end?
There’s a lot of work to do in the ICT sector, and the ministry of communications is one of the most important portfolios in cabinet. Ntshavheni needs to engage much more with the pressing issues on her plate. Getting digital migration done properly, in consultation with the biggest broadcasters in the country, must surely be at the top of her agenda right now, not vote-catching flights of fancy. – © 2022 NewsCentral Media
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral