Finance minister Tito Mboweni shows that territorial infighting is still dominating government while the economy burns

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South Africans can be forgiven for being confused by the release, and subsequent condemnation, of a broad-ranging policy document released by the treasury last week which lays out numerous ideas for resurrecting our stagnant economy.

I’ve always been a fan of Tito Mboweni and his take-no-prisoners attitude to getting things done. I’m saddened he no longer tweets his Lucky Star cooking show. He’s a no-nonsense guy who has served the country admirably as Reserve bank governor, labour minister and now is the economic hot-seat at the finance ministry.

If he says we can save 25% on telecoms costs in the next three years through the “release of spectrum” – and cites the research that figure is based on – I’m very happy to believe him. He’s the finance minister. He knows – unlike ANC destructor-general Ace Magashule – that his comments have an impact on the market, as does those from the treasury, which remains one of the government institutions that still functions despite the attempts of the state-capturers.

The discussion document – if nothing else has produced the debates it intended – argues that “short-term interventions in the telecommunications industry, such as issuing rapid deployment guidelines, releasing spectrum through an auction process, imposing open access conditions, and leveraging the private sector for rolling out broadband would likely reduce the cost of doing business in telecommunications and encourage competition in the sector”. Sounds like a plan, right?

Except to the ANC’s own tripartite partners, who have attacked Mboweni for not doing enough “consultation” – because that’s what South Africa really needs with 29% unemployment and “negative” 3.2% economic growth, more talk.

Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko called it an “incoherent, ill-thought-out and ultimately chaotic intervention in the area of telecoms and ICT” in a surprisingly vitriolic Sunday Times column. He likened the proposal to a “grenade” being lobbed into the telecoms sector. As the smallest of the four telecoms operators, it seems even more surprising that he’d be so against it. The reason is the treasury touched on that very touchy subject, for Telkom, about local-loop unbundling. I was surprised to see that, given that the idea of disintermediating Telkom from its copper landline infrastructure is a good 10 years too late and mostly irrelevant now that so many other operators offer fibre. Landlines have gone the way of the dodo and Mangosuthu Buthelezi. They’re extinct, or don’t know it yet.

Then on Monday Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams weighed in, albeit less aggressively. Conceding that “treasury has a responsibility to trigger a discussion on how to grow the economy” she said “we in the space, who understand better, have to input on that [discussion]document and show them that gone are the days of talking about the telecoms that the document dwells on. We are talking about the cloud and the Internet… I would invite us all to make inputs on that document and help treasury understand where our space is going to”.

A more subtle way of saying Mboweni doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

Just when it looked like government and its ministers seemed to care about the same thing – the country and growing its economy – we’re back to the backbiting. I wonder how the 10m people without jobs are taking this ongoing “consultation”?

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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