Homo Controlus

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HOMO Naledi is “a dinosaur for grown-ups” as I explained to a friend’s young child why last week’s ground-breaking discovery had the adults so excited. If only us grown-ups could find a way to explain how the economy works — and why telecoms is so important — to the ANC leaders who seem blithely unaware that our economy is circling the toilet bowl.

The World Bank says for every 10% penetration of broadband access, you get a 1,38% increase in GDP. It’s an old figure, quoted (and misquoted) for years. How hard can that be for a telecoms minister to interpret?

To use an analogy: As humanity’s hands and feet evolved, we no longer climbed trees; we began walking upright and using our thumbs. We now live online. We’ve become Homo Internetus.

Instead of telecoms being an afterthought in this age where mining is under pressure (from militant labour, investors scared away by government’s high-handedness and knee-jerk response to crises it has failed to acknowledge for years, and the global economic downturn), this vital sector could counteract all those lost jobs and advantages. If government understood, and was willing to do something.

I want to be excited that telecommunications & postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele has finally admitted his own department is “dysfunctional”. So after being in charge since May 2014, he’s only just worked it out?

The deadline for switching over to digital terrestrial television (DTT) has already passed and SA is years away from meeting it because we still haven’t resolved the basics of the decoder and whether it’ll be encrypted or not.

Cwele has promised to fix it and even appointed the public service commission to investigate … blah blah blah.

“We need a functional department, a department that assists with driving the economy,” he told technology journalist Duncan McLeod, adding it was plagued by “a general lack of accountability and a failure to meet deadlines”.

If only we could believe him. This is the same Siyabonga Cwele who, as minister of state security, pushed through the “Secrecy Bill”. The ANC heavyweight responsible for this ham-fisted attempt to control free speech and limit critical reporting of government’s ongoing incompetence is now responsible for providing Internet access.

I used to think it was government incompetence that put us so far behind the curve, preventing us from using the abundant economic activities that real broadband speeds enable for today’s video-rich, data-hungry Internet. But it seems more and more likely that the criticism-averse ANC might be doing this deliberately, keeping us in the digital dark ages so that it can control what its citizens can or can’t access.

Totalitarian regimes are broadly similar in how they restrict free speech and access to information. President Jacob Zuma — whose appointments in legal and policing positions are “deployed” for loyalty over merit — has been trying to limit the media’s ability to cover the rampant corruption and wholesale inefficiency of his various departments and parastatals.

Perhaps we’ve all missed it. Zuma and his cronies are applying the Secrecy Bill by stealth; limiting our Internet access to restrict people reading critical articles even if it impedes the economic growth that the World Bank’s calculations have demonstrated in so many other developing countries.

Is it so unlikely, now that we know so many Eskom and Prasa decisions seem to have been made to favour Zuma Inc & Associates?

How else do you explain such ongoing incompetence in the telecoms sector; a sector so vital for our economy’s survival, and which could be a financial driver in this otherwise bleak economic period? I hope I’m just being paranoid.

This article first appeared on Financial Mail.

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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