If you wondered why telecoms in South Africa is still in the doldrums, look no further than last week’s inept and bungling display over ministerial malpractice – nay malfeasance – by the department of communication and its evil twin, the telecommunications & postal services ministry.
First Siyabonga Cwele, the police boss turned telecommunications & postal services minister, issues an ICT white paper so bizarrely unenforceable and anti-business practise, it’ll be the laughing stock of ministerial documents for years.
We’ll get to that just now because arguably the maddest moment of madness – in a week that saw Hlaudi Motsoeneng defying parliament and “mesmerizingly” talking about himself in the third person and other scandals like the SABC board chair refusing to resign – came from Faith Muthambi, whose title I must stress is communications minister.
Former government spokesman Mzwanele Manyi – who so famously said there was an “over-supply” of coloureds” in the Western Cape – tweeted that Motsoeneng, who was reappointed to a senior position at the SABC after the Supreme Court of Appeals finally concluded that he was illegally installed as state broadcaster’s chief operating officer, ” was on the right side of the Employment Equity Act with regards to his qualifications. SABC governance issues are board matters not Hlaudi”.
Muthambi’s spokesperson Mish Molakeng issues a statement saying: “The ministry wishes to state that Mr Manyi is no longer an advisor to the minister of communications and therefore does not speak on behalf of the ministry”.
Manyi – who was the boss of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) from 2011 to 2012 and a director-general of the Department of Labour before that – appeared to be have been publically rebuked. But not for long. Within hours, poor Molakeng was forced to issue a retraction, distancing Muthambi from distancing herself from her earlier distancing of herself from Manyi.
“The ministry of communications would like to withdraw and retract the statement that was issued earlier regarding Mr Mzwanele Manyi. The statement was issued without the authorisation of the minister. Apologies for inconvenience and parties concern [sic].”
Just when you thought telecoms ministers couldn’t be any more like a Monty Python script, they descend from the ridiculous to the thoroughly absurd. Suddenly Dina Pule doesn’t look like the most hapless and corrupt minister to have held this poisoned chalice of a portfolio.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Cwele’s self-lauded national integrated information and communication technologies (ICT) white paper is another disaster waiting to unfold.
The bizarre and probably legally contestable plan has been approved by Cabinet and is due to be gazetted calls for “measures to support a paradigm shift towards non-exclusive assignment of highly contested spectrum in bands where demand exceeds the amount of spectrum available”. That means cellular operators and providers of wireless broadband won’t “own” the spectrum they’ve paid for, or been using for years, and might even have it taken away from them.
These networks have invested tens of billions of rands building the cellular networks that make wireless broadband and telephony possible.
Cwele – who appears to be more concerned in beating Muthambi in an ongoing, destructive feud – will certainly face legal challenges and has probably scared off any investors. It’s just madness that such a bizarre and impractical attitude towards spectrum has made it into a white paper and will be gazetted.
This new regime could conceivably see that spectrum taken away from the operators – and given to a “wholesale” operator for an open-access network. The last time the government tried this, with broadcast distributor Sentech, it cost hundreds of millions of rands and failed miserably.
Now, the dysfunctional communications departments want to try and set up such a wholesale system – but still can’t get the set-top boxes issue resolved, nor work out who works (and speaks) for them. It’s going to be a disaster.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail