President Jacob Zuma must remove communications minister Faith Muthambi from managing the broadcasting digital migration policy and its accompanying legislation and to restore these with urgency to the ministry of telecommunications & postal services.
Muthambi is about to fail to meet her own deadline of “concluding the migration” from analogue to digital broadcasting in the Northern Cape by 1 January 2016.
The Northern Cape was to receive 16 000 decoders or set-top boxes in the first phase of government’s plan to ensure 5m identified indigent households can continue to watch TV programmes once the analogue signal is switched off, but this is now materially impossible.
This deadline will fail for two main reasons.
Firstly, no government ordered set-top boxes which went into production in August and September have reached the Universal Service & Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa) which is managing the programme.
Secondly, only 2 074 (of the 2 336 identified indigent households who have so far applied) have qualified for free decoders. The remainder have failed to qualify because they do not have valid TV licences.
This lack of decoder delivery is aggravated by two issues: free-to-air broadcaster e.tv’s challenge at the supreme court of appeal to the encryption clause in the controversially revised digital migration policy, and Muthambi’s October announcement that she has requested national treasury to investigate the decoder procurement process.
This means that Usaasa is uncertain whether formally to halt the production process to await the outcome of e.tv’s appeal and treasury’s enquiry.
I am told that Usaasa has written to Muthambi asking for direction on this issue but there has been none forthcoming.
This lack of political leadership and policy missteps by Muthambi, which have seemingly stalled the perpetually failing transition to digital television, with its vast dire political, legal and financial implications, may be behind the sudden resignation last week of Usaasa chair Pumla Radebe.
Usaasa, along with the Post Office, has been ready to manage the logistics process of the digital migration programme for the past year. The current delays can be laid firmly at Muthambi’s door.
In August and September, Usaasa issued orders for 1,5m decoders from three “manufacturers” — BUA Africa, Leratadima and CZ Electronics; and 1,5m antennas and satellite dishes from Ellies Industries, QEC and Temic Tshwane East Manufacturing.
These orders are worth R1 322 515 000: R995 745 000 for the decoders and R326 770 000 for the antennas and dishes.
These were to be delivered to Usaasa in a phased approach started from 15 November and ending on 15 March 2016. None has been delivered or paid for.
Muthambi’s wresting control of the digital migration process from the the telecoms ministry in mid-2014 has:
— Caused protracted legal wrangles in the telecoms sector.
— Caused South Africa to be the only SADC country that has not transitioned to digital broadcasting, and one of the few left in the world that is listed as not yet having started the migration process.
— Further aggravated the digital divide between those who have access to Internet and the marginalised communities that don’t.
— Inhibited e-government service delivery.
— Inhibited the potential economic growth and job creation opportunities that come from inclusion in the global digital economy.
— Collapsed the much-trumpeted — and delayed — boost to the government’s electronics manufacturing strategy that was to open the doors for black entrepreneurs to gain a foothold in the sector and create jobs.
— Created expensive legal battles over policy decision and — should there be further delays with the decoder production process — legal claims from the tender “winning” companies.
— Jeopardised the cash injection the Post Office has been expecting from its role in managing the decoder application and delivery process.
Muthambi must be removed from the digital migration project as a strategic imperative if South Africa wants to progress to a viable and prosperous digitally empowered future.
No South African should be excluded from the global digital economy due to government’s lack of strategic implementation. The digital economy will help create jobs that many South Africans desperately need.
- Marian Shinn is a Democratic Alliance MP