Comms ministry finds stability in Ndabeni-Abrahams

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Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams retains her post as minister leading the country’s ICT agenda.
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams retains her post as minister leading the country’s ICT agenda.

While president Cyril Ramaphosa's new executive has received mixed reactions, ICT industry commentators are pleased with the decision to keep Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams in her post.

Last November, Ramaphosa appointed Ndabeni-Abrahams to head the Department of Communications (DOC). On Wednesday night, the president avoided taking a page out of his predecessor’s book, by keeping the leadership of the newly merged DOC, with Pinky Kekana also staying on as deputy minister.

Independent analyst Dr Charley Lewis says Ndabeni-Abrahams’s continued reign at the communications ministry is excellent news for the sector. “It gives the two departments continuity at the helm as they are completing the re-amalgamation. Beyond the continuity, it ensures for the sector a young woman with enthusiasm and energy in charge.”

However, Lewis notes the minister needs to hit the ground running. “It’s a portfolio suffering badly from its untimely and unwise dismemberment into two, and the failure to carry through so many of the recommendations of the ICT Policy Review Panel.”

Navigating instability

In 2014, the DOC was separated into the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) and a "new" DOC. At the time, the DOC was handed over to former minister Faith Muthambi, while Siyabonga Cwele took over as DTPS minister. They both replaced then communications minister Yunus Carrim.

While Muthambi managed to stay on as minister from May 2014 to March 2017, leaders within the communications portfolio have been chopped and changed every six months or so.

Ayanda Dlodlo, who was named as department head on 31 March 2017, only managed to stay for little over six months before being reshuffled to a different department.

Dlodlo’s reallocation ushered in Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane on 17 October 2017. Kubayi-Ngubane only held the DOC minister post for four months before she was moved to the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The result of Kubayi-Ngubane’s reshuffle saw the communications ministry welcome Nomvula Mokonyane on 26 February 2018. She held the reins for almost a year, but was replaced by Ndabeni-Abrahams when the DOC was consolidated late last year, marking the first outcome of the review process of the size and shape of the national executive and government departments

Mark Walker, IDC associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa, believes retaining Ndabeni-Abrahams “emphasises greater continuity, a fresh, younger insight into the impact of the ICT sector on the economy and social development and representation of women in the ICT sector”.

Arthur Goldstuck, World Wide Worx MD, notes that for the first time in a long while, there is continuity in the communications portfolio.

“The re-appointment also means her outspokenness in the past nine months has not been held against her. Her time in the department, as both deputy minister and minister, makes her almost a veteran of telecommunications policy, so the one massive positive is that we don't have yet another new minister who has to be familiarised with the portfolio. However, that will count for little if we don't see action.”

Key projects

The DOC has a long list of high-priority ICT projects it is in charge of, which up until now have stalled under the leadership of the previous administration.

The department’s merger was lauded by industry pundits because it was seen to drive home the fact that an ICT ecosystem needs a converged policymaker to set the agenda and an independent, integrated regulator to manage its complexities.

In addition to driving the country’s ICT agenda, the department has also been designated to coordinate government's fourth industrial revolution (4IR) programme.

When asked about which projects Ndabeni-Abrahams’s department should prioritise, Walker highlights spectrum allocation, clean-up of the digital terrestrial television (DTT) process, and clarifying the roles of government and the private sector in the rollout of 4IR.

Any hope of swift action in terms of the final policy directive on spectrum allocation was dashed by the communications minister's decision to hold back on the release of the finalised framework.

Goldstuck agrees that a clear policy directive for spectrum allocation is a key mandate, as the minister had promised to meet this some time ago, but then postponed it to after the elections.

“This goes to the heart of creating a more efficient and inclusive telecommunications landscape. It has represented a massive failure of communications policy in this country under the last three ministers, and it is the basis on which Ndabeni-Abrahams will be judged. Unfortunately, her hard-hitting comments on telecommunications needs have, until now, turned out to be only lip-service to those needs.

“Simultaneously, the mess around digital migration must be sorted out. On the one hand, the roll out of set-top boxes has been a disaster from the perspectives of policy, economics, broadcasting and business alike, and right now we need a practical solution that does not bow down to political expediency, as has happened for the past decade. On the other hand, we hear noises of the analogue signal being switched off at the end of this year. That, too, is a recipe for disaster, when the set-top box rollout is still such a mess.

“There is one clear message for the minister of communications: we need action, and we need it urgently.”

Lewis indicates the minister has many tasks ahead of her; namely, strengthening the regulator, licensing desperately-needed spectrum, sorting out the DTT debacle, saving the SABC, revaluating the White Paper, dealing with many legislative loose ends and policy delays, to list a few.

“There’s also the need to work out a clear and compressive country-specific approach to the 4IR juggernaut; one that is not simplistically based on swallowing all the World Economic Forum jargon and hype, but one instead that engages with the real developments and substantive issues, and formulates a way forward that is based on SA’s specific issues rather than on directives from Davos.

“One also hopes for a more strategic and careful approach to engagements with the role-players going forward, a curbing of the tendency to shoot from the hip. Policy interventions need to be weighed and considered in the light of all the issues, and carefully judged to achieve the best long-term result for the sector as a whole.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in the ICT sector. We look forward to seeing it carried through with energy, determination and direction.”

Merger moves

During his address on Wednesday night, Ramaphosa told the nation the Department of Higher Education and Training will merge with the DST. The president appointed former transport minister Blade Nzimande to head up this department. Buti Manamela will serve as deputy minister.

Social media users have expressed mixed views about the bundling of the departments, with some questioning the impact of bringing together two big departments as well as the capabilities of the minister tasked to take charge of the department.

Moira de Roche, IITPSA non-executive director and IP3 chairperson, says the merger is a welcome move because it helps align the need to produce graduates with strong science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills. “I only hope they continue to support initiatives that are aimed lower than tertiary, such as science centres.”

De Roche is of the view that Nzimande has shown himself to be a capable minister. “I hope he surrounds himself with good people to help him drive 4IR strategy. I also think he must work very closely with basic education because higher education can only work with what they get out of the school system and at present the quality is sorely lacking.”

The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse says it will monitor Nzimande’s performance in higher education. “We hope he will rekindle the plan to review the Sector Education and Training Authorities, where looting appears entrenched and unchallenged.”

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