Industry lauds decision to unify comms ministry

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 23 Nov 2018
President Cyril Ramaphosa shakes hands with Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams after her appointment as communications minister.
President Cyril Ramaphosa shakes hands with Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams after her appointment as communications minister.

Industry calls to consolidate the telecommunications and communications departments, most recently from the Black IT Forum, have not fallen on deaf ears, as president Cyril Ramaphosa yesterday announced changes to the national executive, shaking up the ICT-focused ministries.

Ramaphosa welcomed former deputy minister of the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, as the minister that will head up the single communications ministry.

While the proposed merger of the ministries will only come into effect next year, the president said his decision is in line with the work government has undertaken and the announcement made during the State of the Nation Address about realigning government.

"This move is going to ensure we have better alignment and coordination on matters that are critical to the future of our economy in the context of the fourth industrial revolution."

Arthur Goldstuck, World Wide Worx MD, describes Ramaphosa's decision as a deeply positive move and one of the best he has made.

"We vehemently criticised the creation of two separate departments, and have actively called for them to be combined. This will undo some of the damage done by the Zuma administration in creating separate ministries in order to create more Cabinet positions.

"It is another step away from the state capture agenda, and another step towards more effective regulation and development of the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors. The new minister has been a stalwart of the telecommunications department for many years, and has a strong handle on the job."

Sense prevails

Marian Shinn, Democratic Alliance MP and telecoms and postal services shadow minister, says the move is long overdue.

"It was sheer stupidity and greed that prompted it. It should never have happened. The communication chasm it created between the minister of communications and the implementing agencies that reported to the minister of telecommunications is largely responsible for the failure of the BDM [Broadcasting Digital Migration] programme. It will be good to have ICASA in the same stable as the telecommunications entities."

The old Department of Communications (DOC) was separated into the DTPS and the "new" DOC by former president Jacob Zuma in May 2014. At the time, it was handed over to former minister Faith Muthambi, while Siyabonga Cwele took over as DTPS minister. They both replaced then communications minister, Yunus Carrim.

According to Koffi Kouakou, Africa analyst and scenario strategist, history and evidence show it was a bad idea to split the ministry in the first place. "The economic, political and innovation consequences have been a dismal result for SA. We've lost a great deal of competitive advantages.

"What we have now is a move back to the future as we didn't need to split that ministry. Telecommunications and communications must be part of the emergence of convergence. It is a good idea to go back to square one, but the question will be whether we have the necessary competency to speed up the unified ministry."

ICT policy and regulatory expert Charley Lewis concurs that an ICT ecosystem needs a converged policymaker to set the agenda and an independent, integrated regulator to manage its complexities.

"Many of us in the integrated ICT policy review process were firmly of the view at the time that dismembering the then DOC was a short-sighted, politically-expedient lunacy that would set the sector back 10 years.

"Many would therefore have hoped that president Ramaphosa's first Cabinet earlier this year would have bitten the DTPS/DOC bullet, only to have been disappointed. Thankfully, he has now done the sensible thing. Not only that, it looks like this is part of a carefully thought-through plan to streamline and restructure Cabinet along coherent lines of responsibility and accountability."

Unstable ministry

In the space of two years, the communications ministry has had five different department heads.

Following the Cabinet reshuffle in March 2017, which saw Muthambi's exit, the department welcomed Ayanda Dlodlo but her tenure was short-lived. Dlodlo was shuffled to another ministry, resulting in Kubayi-Ngubane taking over ministerial duties in October 2017.

When Ramaphosa took over as president, he too made changes, appointing minister Nomvula Mokonyane to head up the department. Yesterday, the president made the second change to his Cabinet by adding Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Although Ndabeni-Abrahams has a mountainous task ahead, which includes fast-tracking the country's delayed BDM programme, there is consensus that she is capable of steering the communications ship.

Shinn says she is pleased Cwele has been moved. "His efforts to transform the sector have prompted a Mexican standoff with the sector over the ECA Bill which, as it is currently written, is headed for the Constitutional Court.

"The new minister comes with a better understanding of the sector but she has the monster of the SABC to deal with and that will suck most of the oxygen from her day. She needs to give regulatory certainty to the sector to ensure it is competitive locally and abroad, and ensure inclusion of all stakeholders and users in a robust, world-class, affordable ecosystem. She has the knowledge. I hope she leverages it responsibly."

Goldstuck adds: "[Ndabeni-Abrahams] has been one of the most approachable of ministers or deputy ministers with whom I have dealt. She has always been willing to engage, and in fact gone out of her way to do so. This means that, at the very least, she will listen to all stakeholders, and take into account the views to which she is exposed. Yunus Carrim was the last person who was willing to do so before he was returned to the backbenches after only nine months in the job."

Lewis believes Ndabeni-Abrahams is a solid choice, with seven years of experience at this level, across both sides of the DOC and DTPS divide.

"She is personable and passionate, enthusiastic and engaged. She faces many challenges with only a short few months in which to make her mark. But she will have a lot of support in her efforts to re-scramble the convergence egg, and to turn around a sector that has stagnated too long."

End of conflicting roles

Goldstuck says the merged ministries will mean an end to confusion of roles and responsibilities, and the wasted energy resulting from standoffs between the departments. "It will mean more efficient management of regulation of telecommunications and communications. It will mean an end to wasteful expenditure needed to keep two departments going. It will mean a department run by someone who is steeped in its history, and understands the environment."

Lewis points out it will take some time to untangle the damage wrought by the dismemberment, but this is a good start. "The new minister needs to move forward with resolving the key immediate challenges facing the sector: ensuring spectrum is made available as a matter of urgency, dealing with market concentration and high data prices, determining the best way forward on the DTT muddle and delivering on the digital dividend.

"In the medium-term, there is clearly a need to revisit the misnamed 'integrated' ICT Policy White Paper, and to reconsider the ECA Bill currently before Parliament, along with its siblings waiting in the wings."

Kouakou says SA's digital and telecommunications strategy is lagging in the world as well as the African continent.

This merger, he believes, will benefit the industry, especially in terms of organisational coherence and governance of the telecommunications and communications space. "The industry will have coordinated activities and the coherence of policy will help it do its job instead of dealing with two different ministers and having policy fragmentation."

However, he warns there is no assurance in the short- to medium-term that things will go smoothly. "First, there needs to be a minister or governance structure that is strong enough, skilled, technically competent, and acts fast on issues that are of importance.

"We know that most of these ministers will drag their feet and it will take them time to get things done, and there is no assurance that things will happen. However, if the minister surrounds herself with good people, we have a chance that things can speed up."