The clock of South Africa’s progress towards a knowledge-based economy has been turned back by at least a decade through two recent presidential proclamations.
This has negative implications for our economic growth and inclusion of all our citizens in the interconnected world. It will cost us investment capital and hinder innovation and job creation.
President Jacob Zuma and communications minister Faith Muthambi are changing the legislative landscape of the ICT sector by decree rather than the democratic, consultative process of public participation.
In the past six months, they have undermined the forward-looking, thorough and expensive public process of revising policy and amending legislation that is evident in the National Development Plan, South Africa Connect and the ICT policy review. Their actions show they are impatient with democratic processes that are contrary to their intentions.
Their proclamations, policy review notices, actions and pronouncements of intent confirm what the information and communications technology (ICT) sector has assumed for years — that the ANC government doesn’t understand the sector and has absolutely no clue about the economic and social value that ICT delivers to the nation. They have an inward-looking agenda that serves party rather than national interests.
Last week’s presidential proclamation entrenched the backward trend of the ICT legislative environment by splicing various sections and clauses of two acts and swopping them around between the acts. This has undone the progression towards converged communications that has been underway in South Africa for the past decade.
We are one of the few countries left in Africa that regulates the separation of broadcasting from the electronic communications environment and are now out of step with the international thrust towards streamlined, fast and affordable interconnected economic and social relationships.
This about-turn in our ICT environment started in June 2014 when the president decided to split the former department of communications in two and share the relevant basket of legislation between Muthambi and telecommunications & postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele.
Last week’s “splice and swop” regulations have added immense complexity to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) Act and the Electronic Communications Act (ECA), seemingly with the overriding aim of giving Muthambi control over anything to do with broadcasting.
These changes were done without the public participation or the regulatory impact assessments necessary for efficient democratic governance. They were totally unnecessary as a regulatory review of ICT policy and legislation in the converged ICT sector has been underway since late 2012.
The upheaval, delays and costs that these ill-conceived, rushed and unnecessary changes have brought the ICT sector almost to a standstill this year while the turf war raged. Now that the “splice and swop” regulations come into play, the complexities visited on the sector will aggravate the delays and costs in rolling out ICT infrastructure and services which will, among other issues, be counterproductive to reducing the costs to communicate.
No one disputes that these two acts need revision. That is why the ICT policy review was started in 2012. In April 2013, a framing paper was produced and widely discussed at stakeholder events, leading to the publication of a green paper last December. Comments on this paper are due to be received by the telecoms & postal services department by 30 January 2015 and a white paper gazette by midyear.
Because the ICT policy review was launched, extensive revisions to the Icasa Act and ECA that were gazetted late in 2012 were reduced to only technical amendment bills that were bulldozed through parliament at the end of last year and signed into law before the fourth parliament rose in March 2014.
This respect for the policy review process was overturned when the departments were split in the fifth parliament.
The presidential proclamation of 15 July 2014 gave, among other laws, the minister of communications authority over the Icasa Act and the minister of telecoms authority over the ECA.
The problem with that decision is that the Icasa Act is the “housekeeping” legislation that governs how Icasa is constituted and how it operates. The ECA details how Icasa goes about its business of issuing licences, assigning spectrum, investigating competition and developing policies that govern the sector. This meant that Icasa had to report to two ministers.
This ensured that a turf war developed between the two ministers over who was responsible for what — in particular the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, which must be completed by the internationally agreed deadline of 17 June 2015. Kenya — our rival for ICT investment and rankings in Africa — switches over on 25 March 2015. South Africa is not going to make it.
The recent “splice and swop” legislative process of the president — which has neither the support of the departmental staff having to work with it or the stakeholders it should serve — seems to have given the authority for the digital television transition to the minister of communications.
This is a tragedy because she has little understanding that the main purpose of transitioning to digital broadcasting is the opening up of spectrum to bridge the digital divide and include everyone — no matter how remotely situated — into the world of the Internet. The requisite skills for this are in the telecoms department and the entities that report to it — and none of them is keen to change departments and work for Muthambi.
She has also just started her own broadcasting policy review process, duplicating the extensive work by broadcasting experts for the excellent ICT policy revision that has so far cost about R10m.
There is speculation in the sector about why Muthambi — who has shown dictatorial tendencies in her oversight authority of the SABC and protection of some of its top people close to Zuma — and the president are so keen to establish a department seemingly hell-bent on re-engineering the broadcasting, media and content production (including films and websites) sectors.
Only the unfolding of the multibillion-rand digital broadcasting migration and set-top box programme, the reshaping of the broadcasting and media sectors and the election campaigns of 2016 and 2019 will reveal why Zuma has set in motion a disastrous emasculation of South Africa’s ICT-driven economic growth and citizens empowerment potential.
- Marian Shinn is Democratic Alliance shadow minister of telecoms & postal services