If President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Sona address argues for the importance of telecoms, why are the ministers all as wacky and out of touch?


What is it about the portfolio that the communications minister so often seems bereft of their senses?

During the ongoing Please Call me saga between Vodacom and its former employee Nkosana Makate, Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams last month tweeted: “Just shut up Vodacom and do the right thing. ’Talk to Makate’ instead of this poor PR stunt. Don’t talk to us until you have reached a settlement with him and his team.”

It is the most stunning partisan display by a Cabinet minister since Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s shameful behaviour to promote the Gupta’s state capture interests over his own country.

Ndabeni-Abrahams is the minister responsible for a sector vital to the so-called fourth industrial revolution publicly attacking a key “stakeholder,” as government likes to phrase it, which is also the largest company in the country by customers.

Not only is such behaviour unbecoming of a Cabinet minister but also revealed her embarrassing lack of knowledge about a legal process mandated by the Constitutional Court. After negotiations deadlocked, Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub made an offer of “reasonable compensation” as instructed by the apex court, reportedly for R49m. This is a good offer, considering Makate didn’t actually invent the Please Call Me concept, but former MTN lead consultant Ari Kahn did. Kahn has pointed out that his patent Makate and his team presented in their court was actually for another service, not the Call Me concept MTN was running a month before Makate claims he had the idea. Nearly R50m seems like a pretty good offer all of a sudden, doesn’t it?

You would expect a Cabinet minister to be better informed – or at the very least Google a little background.

She has obviously deleted the tweet. But the ignominy lives on.

Her first controversy in her new post last year was to interfere with the new SABC board’s plans to retrench about a quarter of its 3,400 permanent staff, because the broadcaster’s CEO Madoda Mxakwe said it was “technically insolvent”.

Despite it being legislated that the minister can’t interfere in the operational management of the SABC, she told the board to stop. Election year anyone?

As a result, several people on the strongest and most competent board the broadcaster has had in years resigned, plunging the bankrupt organisation into more chaos.

Then this month, she – frankly petulantly – swatted an SABC camera while it was filming an Eastern Cape ANC provincial rally when an angry mob burst into the KwaBhaca (formerly Mount Frere) venue to complain about service delivery. That’s her hand, literally, you can see in the video – which went viral – literally blocking the constitutionally enshrined right to information. She quickly apologised. I heard her on Radio 702 saying she through it was an ANC camera crew – because that makes her actions more acceptable, right?

Her only sane action so far has been to withdraw the controversial Electronic Communications Amendment Bill. I say controversial but I really mean mind-numbing stupid because the bill tried to create a so-called wholesale open-access network (Woan) that was financially and practically unviable. It is about the dumbest idea government has had since the unknown, already captured Zwane was appointed by former Presidunce Jacob Zuma to help his benefactors steal a coal mine from Glencore.

We can only hope she’s some of the dead wood the country is expecting President Cyril Ramaphosa to jettison after the May 8 elections. If she isn’t then we know his enthusiastic endorsement of telecoms and the internet in his tech-savvy State of the Nation address are just empty promises.

Ndabeni-Abrahams’ lack of decorum is unfortunately a bizarre characteristic of ANC deployees in this crucial portfolio.

The very first communications minister of the democratic era, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, was so bad her nickname was “Poison Ivy”. In her decade-long tenure she did everything she could to defend the then monopoly of Telkom, at the expense of our economy. Economists argue about how many percentage points of growth were lost because of her protectionism which held back internet uptake through the then abusive Telkom’s high prices and poor service. The only way to get rid of her – according to the poor taste jokes of the time – was that she literally died in office in 2009.

For a while we thought the only sane occupant was Yunis Carrim – until Justice Malala reminded me, he oversaw the dismantling of the Scorpions. Carrim’s words at the time, in 2008, were: “We are not, simply not, going to hand this country of ours over to organised criminals! No way! You can be sure of that!”

Of course, Zuma and his cronies were organised political shysters – as the Zondo commission of inquiry has revealed about Bosasa and the Saxonwold Shebeen.

Ndabeni-Abrahams’ predecessor Faith Muthambi not only gave confidential Cabinet minutes to the Guptas, as was revealed in the GuptaLeaks but stalled the utterly important process of switching analogue TV signals over to digital. Delayed for years, this extremely valuable spectrum could be better used for wireless broadband instead of soapies.

Muthambi also defended and promoted Hlaudi Motsoeneng – in spite of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela finding that he lied about his matric certificate. The title of Madonsela’s report, who is this generation’s Desmond Tutu, sums up all the communications ministers quite aptly: When Governance and Ethics Fail.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


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."

Leave A Reply