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Malatsi brings fresh tech-focused perspective to comms dept

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 01 Jul 2024
Analysts say new communications minister Solly Malatsi’s to-do list must focus on finalising SA’s spectrum policy and creating a strong telecoms regulator.
Analysts say new communications minister Solly Malatsi’s to-do list must focus on finalising SA’s spectrum policy and creating a strong telecoms regulator.

Analysts in South Africa’s ICT industry have welcomed the appointment of the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) Solly Malatsi (38) as the new minister of communications and digital technologies under the newly-formed Government of National Unity (GNU).

They believe Malatsi has the potential to stabilise the department, which is facing several urgent issues.

Last night, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced the new members of the national executive for the seventh administration, which is inclusive of all the parties in the GNU.

Mondli Gungubele, who served as communications and digital technologies minister since March last year, is now deputy minister of the department.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies is charged with driving SA’s ICT agenda and development of the digital economy.

According to the analysts, Malatsi’s to-do list must focus on finalising SA’s spectrum policy, creating a strong telecoms regulator, and solving the crisis at the South African Post Office and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, believes the success of Malatsi’s tenure as communications minister will be largely premised on the success of the DA’s participation in the GNU.

“If it lasts the full five-year term of this administration, it is likely Malatsi will also maintain his role, which would bring stability to the portfolio for the first time since Pallo Jordan and Jay Naidoo successively held the post in the last century,” says Goldstuck.

“While Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri was minister of communications for 10 years, she presided over a death spiral in ICT policy. The fundamental difference in bringing in a minister of communications from the DA is that he is able to draw on a carefully thought-out policy position that the DA has developed and refined over many years of observing the crashing and burning of so many of SA's communications assets, from the Post Office to the SABC.

“That ICASA [Independent Communications Authority of South Africa] and Telkom have maintained an even keel is due to effective management and operations despite government, and not thanks to government.”

Balancing act

According to Nomvuyiso Batyi, CEO of telecoms industry body, the Association of Communications and Technology, for the last few years, Malatsi has been a key commentator on the industry and policy developments on behalf of the DA.

“We think he has a fair appreciation of the potential of the industry and will hit the ground running. We think the retention of deputy minister Gungubele bodes well for continuity. We hope the new team will drive the department to be more efficient in its policymaking decisions.

“Our sector is fast growing and changing, so we hope the new minister and the team will be able to keep pace and add to the dynamic relations that exist.”

Batyi adds that Malatsi will have to balance political needs with sector needs, and will have to ask questions about the technicalities of the sector.

“We are hoping that the minister will be open to engaging sector leaders robustly and openly, even if we differ, and we will play our part to be proactive to bring the minister up to speed in a respectful manner,” she says.

Mark Walker, associate VP for META region at IDC, believes Malatsi will bring a fresher technology-focused perspective to this portfolio, given his age and experience as MEC in Western Cape public works.

“Hopefully, he will be able to work with Mondli [Gungubele] who has the benefit of many years navigating the politics of the public sector. The hope is that outcomes will be balanced in favour of optimal use of the ICT sector to achieve economic and social benefits that will contribute to growth and investment of the country.”

Solly Malatsi, SA’s new minister of communications and digital technologies. (Image source: DA)
Solly Malatsi, SA’s new minister of communications and digital technologies. (Image source: DA)

Walker expects Malatsi to significantly increase government focus on promotion and investment of ICT across departments and ministries as a vehicle to accelerate economic growth and also as an effective tool to expose corruption by increasing visibility and transparency across government.

He also urges the new minister to quickly finalise spectrum policy and regulation with ICASA – especially regarding technologies such as artificial intelligence and satellite, and resolve the Sentech and Broadband Infraco merger.

Walker encourages Malatsi to revisit and revamp the role and mandate of the State IT Agency as the central government procurement agency and introduce strong measures to end corruption and mismanagement.

“Malatsi must work with the ministries of trade and industry, home affairs, finance, economy to reinstate SA as a prime technology investment destination by finding ways to introduce tax and employment incentives,” Walker says.

Goldstuck notes that Malatsi has a mammoth challenge in turning around the SABC and the SAPO, “which have both been all but destroyed not only thanks to cadre deployment, but also government interference and corruption.

“We are likely to see corruption weeded out, and government putting the institutions in the hands of effective and professional leadership. The challenge of what to do about digital migration, Sentech and the licensing of service providers is more complex.

“Ideally, we should see the rules amended to allow foreign internet service providers like Starlink to operate in SA, as these rules have produced little in the way of empowerment and much in the way of blocking more options for affordable access.”

Mondli Gungebele is now deputy communications minister.
Mondli Gungebele is now deputy communications minister.

Goldstuck adds that the absurd number of ministers of communication in the past 13 years – on average one a year – meant the department was in effect leaderless, rudderless, visionless and hopeless.

“We had glimmers of hope when the likes of Roy Padayachee and Yunus Carrim were appointed, but because communications was the poor relation of government policy, they were quickly deployed or shoved aside to make way for ongoing favours to friends. It highlighted the extent to which government failed to recognise the significance of the portfolio, treating it as an avenue for largesse rather than key to service delivery to the population.”

Goldstuck says the difference this time is that the DA will be able to use its portfolios to prove its effectiveness in government, and this will override the need for patronage that defines the ANC approach to government.

“In effect, the DA is able to build its case for voters to support it in the next elections, do a good job that visibly and practically benefits the nation, and it will probably be rewarded by voters. It cannot afford to play the patronage game that has constantly undermined the effectiveness of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies.”

Establishing certainty

Batyi points out the new minister will have to deal with several issues, including policy uncertainty as a result of the fast-changing industry, and paralysis due to leadership changes over the past two decades.

“There are serious challenges on a few decisions, including digital migration, spectrum issues. We might see a complete overhaul of the sector policy framework that was done in 2002. We look forward to more evidence-based policymaking characterised by regulatory impact assessments. As an industry body, we are also grappling with energy cost issues due to unreliable energy supply, 2G and 3G migration, next-generation spectrum policy, etc.”

She points out the nature of industry has necessitated the changes in political leadership. “The industry has evolved in the last 30 years, with almost each decade bringing new and interesting dimensions in the broader ICT industry. If both the minister and deputy minister are in sync, the new leadership will be in a position to unlock the full potential of the industry in the years to come. Both leaders bring different characters.

“Deputy minister Gungubele’s appointment underscores the critical role of digital technologies in SA's landscape, signalling a shift from traditional communication methods, to a focus on digital transformation. By merging the portfolios of communications and digital technologies, a consolidated approach is being adopted. This appointment also signifies a renewed emphasis on ICTs.

“Deputy minister Gungubele is recognised for his collaborative leadership style, leading us to anticipate positive changes under his guidance. We hope minister Malatsi’s leadership style is collaborative as well.”

Leon Rolls, president of the Progressive Blacks in ICT (PBICT) lobby group, says Gungubele has done an excellent job in transforming the ICT sector by ensuring black internet service providers thrive.

“We believe that having Mondli as a deputy will ensure continuity. We also propose that Solly must serve two years and six months as the minister and they must swap after that. The PBICT has always and will always advocate for progressive development, hence our proposal so that the haves and have nots both benefit during this term of office,” comments Rolls.

“We support the policy of bringing in Starlink. We have been left out from this sector historically and yet we survive. We hope the two work together and ensure we are not left out.

“The PBICT is proposing that SITA be merged with the CSIR to focus on developing government systems and technologies. Broadband Infraco must absorb Sentech and all government connectivity must be procured via Broadband Infraco.”