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Concerns over minister churn in comms department

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Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has been replaced by Khumbudzo Ntshavheni as minister of communications and digital technologies.
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has been replaced by Khumbudzo Ntshavheni as minister of communications and digital technologies.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) is under new leadership yet again, a move analysts say signals yet another political appointment than a push for ICT development.

The DCDT is charged with driving South Africa’s ICT agenda and development of the digital economy.

On Thursday evening, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced sweeping changes to his Cabinet, which saw the incumbent DCDT minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams shipped to the Department of Small Business Development. She has been replaced by minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.

The department also has a new deputy minister in the form of Philly Mapulane, replacing Pinky Kekana, who has moved to take up the second deputy minister position in the Presidency.

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck points out that last night’s national executive change is a case of “another reshuffle, another communications minister”.

“The fact that we are merely seeing a swapping out of ministers indicates there is not true commitment to resolving the country's telecommunications challenges,” says Goldstuck. “If the president took these challenges seriously, he would have sought out an appointee who knows the sector and its challenges.

“We had a superb minister a few years ago in Yunus Carrim, who was reshuffled after a mere nine months, in which he achieved more than most other ministers of communication put together. Clearly, however, he is not part of the inner circle of patronage.”

For Mark Walker, associate VP for sub-Saharan Africa at IDC, Ndabeni-Abrahams’s time was done. “It’s time for some new and fresh ideas… Stella had been in the role for a while now.”

Churn of ministers

The communications ministry is no stranger to leadership changes, with outgoing heads leaving under clouds of controversy.

At some stage, the ministry was also split to form two separate departments: the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) and a ‘reconfigured’ Department of Communications (DOC).

Prior to the 2018 merger of the DTPS and DOC to form the now-DCDT, the ministry welcomed five different department heads in the space of two years.

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

When Ramaphosa took office, he too made changes, appointing Nomvula Mokonyane to head up the department in February 2018. Later that year, the president made the second change to his Cabinet by adding Ndabeni-Abrahams, tasking her to head up the unified communications ministry.

Other former ministers in the department have included Siphiwe Nyanda, Dina Pule, Yunus Carrim and the late Roy Padayachee.

Goldstuck states: “The constant reshuffle, and having had 11 ministers in 12 years, makes a mockery of government's promises of building the economy, when one of the key sectors of the economy is treated as a beach ball, there as a distraction rather than a national priority.

“Most of the ministers may as well have spent their time on the beach for all the value they've added to the sector.”

Walker says the churn of communications ministers has, to some degree, made the department a reshuffle playground. He notes Ndabeni-Abrahams’s tenure in the DCDT has been a bit longer compared to her predecessors.

“I don’t think it’s [the communications department] a reshuffle playground necessarily, but I think that this portfolio does need to be reshuffled – at least every two to three years – because technology moves so fast.

“You need somebody who can stay on top of it [technology changes] and be abreast of it. Three years is not a bad time, even though a five-year term is more ideal. This is so that programmes, initiatives and policies that are developed can be proposed, turned into law and implemented, so that results can be seen.”

He continues: “Ideally you’d want the person enrolled in such a position for between three and five years, especially in this portfolio because it is such a fast moving and deeply impactful portfolio.

“Technology is an underpinning for most of commerce and a lot of governments now. Without technology, most organisations cannot be administered and cannot be managed.”

Who is the new minister?

Ntshavheni is the 14th minister, depending on how one counts, to head the communications ministry.

She is a member of the National Assembly, the African National Congress (ANC) and the ANC YL NEC.

She holds an MBA degree from Bradford University in the United Kingdom (2008). Her other qualifications include BA Hons Development Studies (1999) and BA Hons Labour Relations (1999), both from the University of Johannesburg – formerly RAU.

Goldstuck says it’s hard to say in advance what the sector can expect, but industry players would be well advised to keep doing what they've been doing, building the telecoms sector despite government rather than thanks to government.

“The major operators, namely MTN, Vodacom and Telkom, have invested billions in infrastructure every year, and it is thanks to their commitment rather than government enablement that we have such robust networks. Ntshaveni must play an enabling role, rather than trying to punish the sector as so many ministers have done, including her predecessor.”

Walker points out the one downside of Ntshavheni’s appointment as head of the DCDT is that “she does not have a technology background at all”.

“She has two honours’ degrees in social development studies. She has an MBAfrom Bradford University, which is good because it shows she has good commercial sense – it is very necessary for this portfolio.

“I’m hoping she will have some good technology advisors to help her from a technology perspective. On her side, it does seem like she has good administrative acumen; she knows how government works because of her work in Limpopo; and she’s held various roles within government and Parliament.”

Additionally: “She’s quite young, and I think that is necessary in this portfolio to have somebody who is youthful and has a lot of energy, because this is a demanding portfolio, given that its focus is communications and digital technologies.”

Top priority tasks

Key among her tasks, Ndabeni-Abrahams had to accelerate government’s years-long delayed digital migration project, SA Connect, spectrum release, and driving digital skills among youth, to name a few.

However, progress in regards to some of these projects has been found wanting. For example, spectrum is yet to be allocated, even though mobile operators have been clamouring for it for years. Government is also looking to a spectrum auction to boost the fiscus.

For Goldstuck, the failure to allocate spectrum is the true symbol of the department's disgrace.

“It is now 16 years after the last significant allocation of spectrum, and nothing symbolises lost opportunity as much as this failure. It needs all hands on deck – in other words, cross-governmental and industry participation – to resolve.”

Walker concurs that under Ndabeni-Abrahams’s watch, the digital migration project never really moved, spectrum allocation and plans for the wholesale open access network have stood still.

He adds that these are big and important projects; however, acknowledges the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic posed on implementation. “A year of her administration essentially was lost. I think it would have been very difficult to get progress on any of those matters.

“She has created a good sense of awareness around the concept of the fourth industrial revolution, although in some cases it was a bit misguided in terms of the concept of the technology revolution rather than a social revolution.

“She has underscored the fact that digital technology is the way of the future; it is a critical piece of the state machinery and the commercial environment, and its impact on labour is also another key area.”

The new minister should prioritise sorting out the spectrum allocation delay, emphasises Walker. “Let’s get the spectrum stuff sorted very quickly. Spectrum is critical, especially with the advent of 5G-type technologies.

“I think there is a requirement for very strong insight into how to make the technology sector open. Remove artificial government-created regulations and constraints that are holding the sector back, like spectrum, certain employment policies and government and commercial policies around governing the sector – these need to be reviewed because they are very difficult to navigate.

“There should be some kind of tax relief or economic relief for companies that are rolling out very capital intensive projects, to speed the uptake of technology across South Africa,” he concludes.

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