ICASA must seize opportunity to be led by strong chairman

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 26 Mar 2019
ICASA has been plagued by leadership challenges in the past.
ICASA has been plagued by leadership challenges in the past.

The Independent Communications Authority of SA's (ICASA's) next chairperson must have a strong sense of governance, and a good understanding of telecommunications needs, priorities and bottlenecks, both from a provider and consumer perspective.

Former ICASA council chairpersons:

  • Mandla Langa, chairperson (2000 to June 2005)
  • Paris Mashile, chairperson (2005 to June 2010)
  • Stephen Mncube, chairperson (2010 to June 2015)
  • Rubben Mohlaloga, acting chairperson (June 2016 to September 2017)
  • Paris Mashile, acting chairperson (September 2017 to November 2017)
  • Rubben Mohlaloga, chairperson (December 2017 to 20 March 2019 )
  • Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, acting chairperson (25 March to date)

This is the word from Arthur Goldstuck, World Wide Worx MD, adding the person must have the willingness to push for the resources needed by the regulator to do its job.

ICASA currently has an acting chairperson in Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, whose appointment follows the dismissal of convicted fraudster, Rubben Mohlaloga, last week. Modimoeng will be in this role until a permanent chairperson is appointed, says the telecoms regulator.

With the chairperson post now occupied in an acting capacity, the process to find a permanent replacement resumes once again.

Dominic Cull, regulatory advisor to the Internet Service Providers' Association of SA, believes the Mohlaloga leadership hiccup is an opportunity for ICASA to appoint a strong leader who is demonstrably independent from industry.

Rubben Mohlaloga

Rubben Mohlaloga was last week dismissed as chairperson of the ICASA council.
Rubben Mohlaloga was last week dismissed as chairperson of the ICASA council.

When Mohlaloga was initially appointed as one of the authority's councillors in November 2012, his brush with the law was already in the public domain, as he had already been charged with defrauding the Land Bank of R6 million, but the case had yet to go through the court process.

After his stint as councillor, he was appointed as acting chairperson on 22 June 2016, pending the appointment of a permanent chairperson. Between July 2015 and November 2017, the position of chairperson of the ICASA council was rotated.

In September 2017, the regulator announced Mohlaloga's departure and said he would be replaced by Paris Mashile. On 1 December 2017, Mohlaloga made a comeback and was permanently appointed as council chairperson.

Just when it seemed the ICASA council had found its chairperson in Mohlaloga, things took a turn when he was found guilty of fraud and money laundering by a Specialised Commercial Crimes Court in Pretoria last January.

The former chairperson's employment status remained unchanged during his legal battle, guilty conviction and 20-year sentence, with ICASA and the Department of Communications noting the decision to remove him from office rested with the National Assembly.

On 12 March, Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Communications resolved he be removed from his post in terms of Section 8 of the ICASA Act.

The portfolio committee's decision resulted in Mohlaloga being suspended by minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, and his subsequent dismissal last week.

The chairperson is the most visible representative of ICASA and its council, and is important in positioning ICASA in the minds of the international community, stakeholders and the public, Cull comments.

He goes on to say while the process to remove Mohlaloga dragged on for some time, it was efficiently undertaken once his conviction was confirmed. "ICASA itself had no role to play in this process and it has acted expeditiously to appoint an acting chair."

Paris Mashile

From 2005 to 2010, Mashile served a full five-year term as ICASA chairperson. He succeeded Mandla Langa, whose tenure as chairman expired on 30 June 2005.

Mashile returned to the regulator in July 2013 as councillor, and between 2016 and 2017 he served as acting chairperson.

According to ICASA, during his tenure as both councillor and acting chairperson, Mashile was "instrumental in making sure that ICASA discharges its constitutional and statutory mandate without fear, favour or prejudice".

He is also said to have led a number of strategic regulatory projects, including the process for licensing of spectrum, the licensing of a free to air television broadcasting service, and the review and updating of the National Radio Frequency Plan, 2017.

Goldstuck concurs, noting that when Mashile originally served as chairman until 2010, he was an exemplary leader, but hamstrung by a lack of resources. "Unfortunately, when I made the point about resources at the time, it was seen as an attack on ICASA, and they shot themselves in the foot by not backing the call to build their capacity."

Currently, Mashile serves as councillor on the ICASA council.

Solid council

Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng is acting chairperson of the ICASA council.
Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng is acting chairperson of the ICASA council.

The South African telecoms regulator defines its council as its highest decision-making body. It consists of eight members and the chairperson.

Those appointed to serve on the council are selected on the principles of transparency, openness and accountability, commitment to fairness and freedom of expression.

As of December 2017, the ICASA council is made up of Mashile, Modimoeng, Thembeka Semane, Nomonde Gongxeka-Seopa, Botlenyana Mokhele, Peter Zimri, Palesa Kadi and Dimakatso Qocha.

Although it has been plagued by leadership challenges in the past, Goldstuck notes, in the past six months or so, ICASA appears to have shaken off the regulatory sloth that burdened it for much of this decade.

"That had a lot to do with the appointment of the new minister of communications, Ndabeni-Abrahams, who seemed to inject both the department and the regulator with a new sense of vigour," he states. "That suggests, in turn, that the role of the chair is almost redundant where you have strong and active councillors, and a strong mandate from the minister."

Cull points out that 2019 is likely to be a challenging year for ICASA, particularly around the assignment of high-demand spectrum.

As a result, he believes, strong leadership will be required to ensure ICASA can retain its objectivity through this process.

"There is significant political pressure for this to proceed and ICASA has done substantial preparatory work but the process itself will be extremely difficult and politically fraught.

"With a new(ish) minister in place, the new chair should have the ability to ensure a more constructive relationship between policy-maker and regulator. ICASA's investigation into competition in the provision of mobile data services is incredibly important for the affordability of communications for the majority of South Africans and will also require decisive leadership."