In 2007, when the ANC asked Ismail Vadi to become chairman of the important parliamentary portfolio committee on communications, he was stunned. “I knew absolutely nothing about communications,” he says.
But since assuming the role just over two years ago, Vadi has taken to the job like a duck to water. Under his direction, the committee has become vocal and active in the information and communications technology sector — turning the heat up on state-owned enterprises, the cellphone operators and the regulator.
I meet Vadi at the ANC’s nondescript constituency office in Lenasia, south-west of Johannesburg. We have only 45 minutes to talk as he’s rushing off to a top-level meeting at the SABC in Auckland Park.
But in our short interview, Vadi makes it clear that the portfolio committee’s high-profile interventions in 2009 — including the well-publicised hearings on cellular call termination rates — were just the start. This year, he says, the committee plans to tackle the big issues facing the SABC, Sentech and the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa).
Icasa is a serious problem child for the committee. “We defend the principle of independence for the regulator — and we’d never want to compromise that — but for that independence to be respected, Icasa’s decisions must be of high quality, based on the best possible legal and technical advice,” Vadi says. “In my estimation, Icasa has not earned its colours and has been found wanting at the technical and legal level.”
As a result, the committee will be “very stringent on oversight processes”.
Icasa councillors faced a grilling from the committee in 2009.
“We don’t want to humiliate people, we’re not in that game, but they will only jack themselves up if we put a spotlight on them and hold them accountable for their actions,” Vadi says.
He says there are a number of underlying problems at Icasa that must be addressed. Firstly, the simmering tensions between the authority’s management and its nine-member council need to be sorted out urgently.
“There is constant trampling on toes and disputes,” Vadi says. “It’s a structural problem where the relationship between the councillors and the administration has not been properly defined.”
The second challenge is a lack of capacity. This has been exacerbated by Icasa’s problems, which has scared away scarce skills. People don’t want to work for an organisation that is dysfunctional.
The third problem, Vadi says, is the way the regulator is structured. Questions need to be asked about the need for a full-time council of nine people plus an executive team, or whether better results would be achieved through a different, smaller structure. “The minister [Siphiwe Nyanda] is conducting a legislative review, and I don’t want to pre-empt that.”
Three terms of three councillors, including chairman Paris Mashile, end in June, and parliament is directly responsible for finding and recommending suitable candidates to the communications minister. It must recommend five people to Nyanda, who will then choose three from that shortlist. That work will have to kick off soon if new councillors are to be appointed in time.
State-owned broadcasting signal distributor Sentech is also unlikely to escape the attention of Vadi and the portfolio committee in 2010. Vadi says the committee is “far from happy” with the performance of the company.
“We have not been as tough on Sentech as we’d have liked,” he says. “The company has to define its core functions. It is now trying to get involved in undersea cabling, which is not its core function. Its core function is in broadcasting signal distribution.”
Vadi also wants Sentech to answer questions about why it’s not rolling out wireless broadband services to rural schools. “Either they can do that project, or they can’t. If they can’t, they must be held accountable for that.”
Another area that will exercise the committee’s mind in 2010 is the appointment of a new Sentech CEO — Sebiletso Mokone-Matabane, who currently heads the organisation, is retiring in September when her term ends. Though parliament is not responsible for the appointment of the Sentech CEO — this is the responsibility of the minister — Vadi says the committee has a direct interest in who will be named to the position.
The ongoing debacle at the SABC is also top of mind for Vadi and the portfolio committee. Parliament plans to scrutinise the public broadcaster’s annual financial results. “We’ll be looking at the strategic plan of the SABC much more carefully,” he says.
On the legislative front, there’s also much work to be done. First up is the Post Bank Bill, which, if passed, will corporatise the Post Bank, which falls under the SA Post Office. “Until now, it’s just been a public savings facility, but the bill proposes to give it lending capacity, too, which would make it a fully fledged bank.”
Then there’s the contentious Public Service Broadcasting Bill, which the opposition Democratic Alliance is contesting. The bill proposes that television licence fees be scrapped and that an additional tax be levied to fund the SABC.
Vadi says the pressure on the committee to perform is coming from the top. President Jacob Zuma has made it clear that he is placing a higher value on accountability — of the executive and of state-owned entities such as the SABC and Sentech, many of which are “not performing at optimal levels”.
He says all political parties have put forward a united front in dealing with the problems, particularly at the SABC and at Icasa. “We all went through an intensive, four-day course on the sector at the University of Cape Town,” Vadi says. “This brought all of us to the same theoretical plane.
“I think there’s value in ongoing academic training for our members,” he says.
It’s not surprising that Vadi places a high value on education and training. Though he’s always been politically active, his roots are in education. He taught history and English at the MH Joosub Technical Secondary School in Lenasia for eight years. He also lectured at Wits for three years and is married to a former teacher.
When he gave up teaching in 1994 to become a parliamentarian, he served 12 years in the education portfolio committee.
In more recent years, he’s developed an interest in security and crime issues and has worked in parliament’s safety and security portfolio committee and in the joint standing committee on intelligence. This interest led him to doing a masters in security studies and he’s now working towards his doctorate in the subject through the University of Pretoria.
Born in Kliptown, near Soweto, the 49-year-old Vadi has lived in Lenasia for the past 44 years. Vadi, who forms part of the ANC’s leadership in Gauteng, first became involved in politics at Wits where he was a member of the executive committee of the Black Student Society in 1980 and 1981.
He later became involved in youth politics in Lenasia as an activist for the ANC-aligned Transvaal Indian Congress and the United Democratic Front.
Vadi then joined the Progressive Teachers’ League, a forerunner of sorts to the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). He became national vice-president of Sadtu in 1990 and held that position until 1994, when he became a member of parliament.
Unlike some former chairmen of the communications portfolio committee, Vadi says he has no interest in going into business. “I don’t have any business acumen,” he says. “This is my fourth term in parliament, so I supposed that’s the career path I’ve chosen.”
Vadi, who has three children and two grandchildren, says he loves hiking and fishing. “When I’m in Cape Town, I walk a lot on the mountain, though last year I hardly had the time,” he says.
He also enjoys reading, particularly on subjects related to politics and religion. He’s currently reading a book on the history of Islam in Africa. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral