It can be tough to understand the politics of a country, even if you have lived there for most of your life. We are brought up to have expectations of our political leaders – expectations born of our knowledge of history, our political education and the means by which they became leaders. Was it a revolution? Was it an election? Was it hereditary? Is the leadership focused on one person or is it a collective? Were promises made? Were promises broken? Will they be seduced by the corruptive influences of holding power?
Whether we like the leadership style or not, it is in the nature of human communities that we try to get on with our lives – to “make the best of it”. Even when we are confused or angered by the sometimes illogical, sometimes illegal, decisions of the leaders. Even when we suffer directly from the consequences of tolerating bad leadership. Many long-established democracies are balanced on a knife-edge, where a small proportion of the voting population decides the political flavour of the majority party at each election – a decision that may alienate almost half of the affected citizens. In a stable society, the subtle shift does not “rock the boat” but in more volatile communities, the shift can have devastating consequences.
Every so often, a change of leadership becomes disruptive. South Africa has had several such disruptions – the election of President Nelson Mandela being one of the most famous. More recently, for the third time in just over a year, South Africa has changed its Finance Minister, with the latest appointment of Malusi Gigaba to hold the country’s purse strings being accompanied by several other changes in the Cabinet.
How is this relevant to the ICT sector? Prior to 2014, South Africa had a Department of Communications (DoC) responsible for ICT policy, including telecommunications, broadcasting, postal services and related matters. During the previous 20 years, we saw the unexpected and rapid growth of the mobile communications industry and the beginning of the landslide towards all things digital. The President decided to disrupt the DoC, which was split into two departments (each with a Minister and Deputy Minister and full departmental staff), one retaining the same name (DoC) and the other becoming the Department of Telecommunications & Postal Services (DTPS). The former focused on broadcasting and content (i.e., the information provided), the latter on the carriage of voice and data across networks in electronic form (i.e., the provision of information).
In 2012, the former DoC had initiated an ICT policy review process, at a time when Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams was the Deputy Minister. The process was inherited by the DTPS in 2014 and culminated in the publication of the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper [PDF] towards the end of 2016, almost five years later, by which time Dr Siyabonga Cwele was the Minister and Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize his Deputy.
What else happened in those five years? Self-driving cars, Uber, LTE-Advanced, Cloud computing, Netflix, Bitcoin, fibre-to-the-home. Technology advanced apace, creating massive opportunities for people worldwide to benefit from innovation. Some local initiatives did not advance – digital migration in South Africa has stalled way beyond the 2015 deadline, the SA Connect broadband rollout has not passed the pilot stage. The description may be a little simplistic but it adds up to an era when the outside world was adopting new technologies as fast as possible but the policy about its adoption in South Africa was marking time. At the end of it, a Cabinet re-shuffle that saw Dr Cwele stay in post at DTPS and his Deputy replaced by Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, returning to the more technology focused portfolio from her stint at DoC. The outgoing good Professor was promoted to Minister of Home Affairs, whose Minister Gigaba took over at Finance.
Rearranging the chairs, indeed! But will the new arrangement change the policy? Will it speed up its implementation? There has been some significant disagreement from some industry players about the feasibility of sections of the policy but the Minister is adamant that the policy stays. Only the mechanisms for implementation can be discussed.
At its heart, the policy sounds good. South Africa’s ICT policy has always sounded good. It centres on the pursuit of access, availability and affordability to achieve the desirable goals of socio-economic growth. It’s the methodologies that belie the ideals.
The fundamental duty of every democratically elected government is to work in the best interests of all the people it serves. There is a fine line between providing security and protection of rights in a balanced and benevolent manner and creating a securitised environment that puts the tools of control in the hands of a clique determined to gain and hold power at all costs. We can be blinded from the truth by words that sound as if “we” are being protected from those who might wish us harm when, in reality, “we” are being denied the right to freedom of expression, freedom of ideas and freedom of association.
If the stated objectives of the South African ICT Policy document are genuine, the Minister and his team will accept the wisdom of the stakeholders who say that some of the methodologies are not feasible (such as the monopolistic wholesale Wireless Open Access Network) and are urging him to consider alternative proposals. To state (as he has) that the policy is set in concrete is to deny the democratic process. Of course, the elected government and its executive have a duty to turn the mandate of the ballot box into good law to support good practices. But they also must listen, listen to wise voices whose only intention is to steer them away from creating bad law supporting bad practices.
South Africans are no different from all Africans. The lengthy and sometimes painful transition from the colonised centuries into fully functional, integrated, empowered communities requires affordable access to all the tools that enable humans to out-perform their human abilities. Those tools enable learning, communication and understanding. They enable production, development and trade. The Minister has an opportunity to use the policy to facilitate reaching those goals, instead of focusing on controlling who has access to those tools.
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