After years of inaction and delay in resolving some of the big policy bottlenecks holding back South Africa’s communications technology industry — a sector that has the potential to underpin economic growth and even to lift countless people out of poverty — one would have thought that it would have been an area where President Jacob Zuma’s administration would have expended particular effort after the May general election. Yet the opposite has happened.
Since May, when Zuma decided (apparently at a whim) to split the department of communications into two new departments, one looking after telecommunications and postal services and the other effectively acting as a propaganda ministry that houses the SABC and GCIS, policy formulation and decision making have gone into stasis.
Nothing that needs the urgent attention of either telecoms minister Siyabonga Cwele or his counterpart at communications, Faith Muthambi, has been dealt with resolutely. Indeed, the two ministers still seem to be warring over which of them will manage South Africa’s already embarrassingly late project to migrate broadcasters from analogue to digital technology.
There are only seven months to go if the government is going to keep its promise to the world that it will complete the project on time (it won’t). Yet, the country still hasn’t even begun the process of “dual illumination”, where both analogue and digital signals coexist so consumers can buy the set-top boxes they’ll need to continue receiving terrestrial broadcasts. (Dual illumination takes years.)
Instead, South Africa is engaged in an ill-thought-through project to try to build a black-owned industrial electronics base on the back of a set-top box tender, hoping that somehow, beyond this one government tender, local businesses will be able to compete with the Chinese. The only way that could happen is through hefty state grants that the national fiscus can ill afford and through the sort of foolish protectionism that is the antithesis of the free-market system.
Almost a year has passed since former communications minister Yunus Carrim — the only dynamic minister the sector has had in the past 15 years — presented what should have been a final policy on digital migration to cabinet. Since then, little has happened. There’s no resolution to the war between MultiChoice and e.tv over whether the set-top boxes should contain an encryption system. And there’s no sign of political leadership on the issue. Instead, little if anything is happening regarding an issue that has crucial implications for not only the broadcasting industry but the broader economy — which will benefit when incumbent and yet-to-be-licensed telecoms operators are given the spectrum they need to extend wireless broadband networks more broadly across South Africa.
Policies dealing with the rapid deployment of telecoms infrastructure — crucial for allowing mobile and fixed-line operators to build networks quickly with a minimum amount of red tape — are gathering dust in a cupboard. The same goes for a policy dealing with the allocation of the spectrum the telecoms operators need so they can build strong 4G networks instead of reallocating bits of voice spectrum so they can offer rudimentary 4G access today. Cwele has promised to publish the spectrum policy by March 2015. It can’t be allowed to slip beyond that date.
Then there’s the Post Office, which, by all accounts, will collapse if it doesn’t soon receive a government bailout. Even here, government appears to have dawdled, even as the crippling strike has dragged into its fourth month. One has to ask why Cwele appears to have taken a hands-off approach to the crisis. Once again, political leadership has been absent.
Even on broadband, about which government mouths platitudes on a regular basis, there has been little activity since the election.
At a recent press conference, Cwele said no decisions have been made yet about what role Broadband Infraco and other state-owned companies will play in government’s plan to reduce the digital divide in South Africa.
He said “intense” discussions are taking place in government, looking at different options as to how those state-owned entities might cooperate with each other and with the private sector in extending broadband to more South Africans.
“From our side, there is no rush,” he said.
That, I would submit, is the problem.
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral. Find him on Twitter
- This column was first published in the Sunday Times