A deputy minister just like us
Hlengiwe Mkhize would support the reuniting of the two comms departments, saying "it's important to consolidate and move the way the world is moving."
It's a surprise when the Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services replies personally to a request for an interview, saying she'd love to do it.
It's even more of a surprise when she picks a location that's handy for me and arrives 30 minutes early. Helpful behaviour isn't something I'm used to from the government's ICT sector.
Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize gives a big laugh and says: "It's important to realise that whatever we do is for the public good. The more you communicate, the better, because otherwise, people won't understand what you do and why it's for them, so it's about accountability."
It's only when people know what's going on and give feedback that the government can reposition its policies to meet their needs, she says.
Feedback from the industry is rarely positive towards the government's technology policies. Recently, industry players told Mkhize they are just continuing with their business operations irrespective of the department's thinking. That gave her a clear mandate to continually agitate within parliament and its subcommittees to get things moving. "That kind of feedback puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on us to say it can't be business as usual because it doesn't work," she says.
I quickly get the impression that Mkhize is just like us - frustrated by the lack of progress and exasperated by government incompetencies and shenanigans. She jokes about the Guptas, then agrees - albeit very diplomatically - that it was wrong to split the Department of Communications (DOC) into two different entities two years ago. The Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) was rather nonsensically carved out of the DOC, although the fields they oversee are merging.
To be fair, the government must be allowed to try new things because it was battling to achieve its goals, she says. "Maybe the idea was to fast-track certain things, but we have to move towards convergence because the whole world is moving towards convergence. With one platform, you can have everything you require - internet, video, broadcasting - so it's important to consolidate and move the way the world is moving. If government doesn't consolidate, it carries a cost that could be avoided."
There are no plans to reunite the departments, although Mkhize would fully support that, blaming some of the delays in action on needing consensus and approval from two departments instead of one. Importantly, the policy waverings and delays that the ministries are notorious for are deterring foreign investors, she says. "Multinationals are not going to come here and wait for six months to a year for a licence because there's no agreement in terms of the policies that should be implemented. They will move on to Russia, Malaysia, Nigeria or Rwanda."
A merger is likely between Broadband Infraco and Telkom, however, to help achieve the aim of universal access to broadband in a project called SA Connect. "We spent a lot of time last year interacting with MPs and talking to Broadband Infraco, ensuring its capabilities are utilised within the broader framework of broadband rollout. The creation of a new entity might have been done to solve specific problems, but I don't think, today, we have the luxury of having two entities serving more or less the same function," she says. "There's a lot of money going towards staff, especially the executives, and if it's under one entity, the money could go towards operations and fast-tracking broadband rollout."
...people who lack information become a high-risk group for instability.
She talks of fresh efforts to pull all the policies together and a new sense of urgency for SA Connect, including making R40 million available for municipalities to install public WiFi hotspots. "It's important to do that because broadband rollout may take longer and people need to be connected - especially young people who require the internet for career guidance, to access jobs and for economic inclusion," she says. "So we looked at WiFi hotspots because we can't afford to miss a day in fast-tracking connectivity through all possible modes."
Since the government spends so much time unraveling previous policies or entire companies that haven't solved the country's ICT problems, I ask if it has any place at all in the ICT arena filled with competent private companies.
Mkhize argues that the private sector naturally operates in commercially viable areas, and the government needs to enforce policies that cover the neglected areas, too. Regulators also need policy guidelines before they can issue licences and the obligations that go with them.
"Clearly the people who need to be connected are in the outskirts, not in areas where the private sector is doing business, so without any government direction and constant intervention through policies, the poor, rural areas and people in the townships, away from the big cities, will be forgotten. And people who lack information become a high-risk group for instability. Anyone can fabricate information and nobody can test it. So I believe we play a big role."
Mkhize's other passion is gender equality, and she would love to create, or at least champion, a centre that trains women for careers in ICT. "The future for poor women isn't talking about co-operatives all the time, but women who own assets. A women's development centre that teaches ICT capabilities would have a massive impact and reposition women differently. I'm in the hub of ICT, so that's something I can influence."
We can't afford to miss a day in fast-tracking connectivity through all possible modes.
She's also passionate about Nemisa, the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa, which teaches the production and technical skills needed by the TV, radio and broadcasting industries.
She's keen to increase the number of students completing its courses and ensuring its curriculums are appropriate for the workplace. Part of that will include getting more captains of industry involved and offering work experience placements. "I want people who come out of Nemisa to be ready to play within the value chain. We can't expect everybody to do a B.Sc in Computer Science, but through Nemisa, we can skill people to be key players in this digital society."
This article was first published in the July 2016 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.