The firing of Communications Minister Dina Pule didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. Her tenure was characterised by scandal (she is being investigated by the South African Police Service, Parliament’s Ethics Committee and the Public Protector) and inaction. Even for a government that doesn’t take Communications seriously, something clearly had to be done.
That ‘something’ turned out to be the appointment of the fourth Minister of Communications in President Zuma’s Cabinet. Like two of his three most recent predecessors, Yunus Carrim has little or no experience in the sector or the portfolio. The only Minister who had was the late Roy Padayachie, who served as DG in the department before being appointed Minister some years later.
Carrim most recently served as Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs and is an academic, communist, and struggle veteran. He has a diploma in journalism and a Master’s degree in sociology.
In his speech on 10 July after being sworn in, Carrim highlighted the SABC, and promised to turn the ICT sector around, noting the need for swift action. Given how much remains outstanding on the Ministerial ‘todo’ list, and that elections are just around the corner, he’s going to need to act fast.
Spectrum allocation, local loop unbundling and digital terrestrial television migration are probably at the top of the industry’s lists of things it needs done so it can move on with, for example, LTE rollouts.
DA Shadow Communications Minister Marian Shinn noted in a press statement on the new appointment that Carrim’s priorities should include fast-tracking the allocation of high-speed spectrum for wireless broadband services and vigorously pursuing the transition to DTT. He should also study the section on ICT in the National Development Plan to gain a clear understanding of the Communications ecosystem – possibly a subtle hint that making the sector more competitive requires less government interference and more regulatory and legislative enablement.
Other things that need to be done, says Shinn, include taking action on the future of DG Rosey Sekese, placed on special leave some time ago, and doing a thorough evaluation of the skills of the DDGs, advisors and chief directors in the department. “This will determine their suitability to direct the best possible policy development and legislative framework for South Africa’s dynamic ICT industry so it can become a leading competitor in international markets,” she says.
Research ICT Africa executive director Dr Alison Gillwald says Carrim is in a tough position, coming in at the end of an administration. “But if he’s not simply going to be putting his fingers in the holes in the dyke for his period in office (and, really, does he have enough fingers, or more pertinently has the dyke already given?), he and Cabinet will need to demonstrate some conviction about the importance of the sector and make some bold decisions. He has indicated that his touchstones are the National Growth Path and the National Development Plan. There is very little guidance from the National Growth Path with regard to ICT specifically. In fact, it’s lamentably overlooked, but the National Development Plan does provide a vision around which to mobilise the sector and government itself. Clearly, there’s much to be done and the obvious place to start would be to deal with the fractured policy that has seen our steady descent down global indices. The country simply cannot be paralysed any longer, waiting for the comprehensive e-strategy proposed in the Plan. The sector is crying out for decisive leadership,” she states.
LINK Centre senior lecturer Charley Lewis adds that the Minister must ensure that “the ICT Policy Review process survives the leadership change, is strengthened and supported to deliver the wide-ranging and thorough review of the sector that is long overdue as a foundation for ensuring that policy, legislation and regulation in the sector is properly retooled for a converging, broadband-enabled 21st century ICT eco-system.”
South Africa is falling further behind its developing market peers, as Gillwald notes, and this needs to be urgently remedied. The importance of ICTs to the economy, education, social services and development is well understood internationally. South Africa needs a Minister of Communications who understands that and can ensure that the much needed policy is drawn up and implemented to enable these benefits to be realised.