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Why a good strugglista does not a good governor make

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Take Telkom as an example. The entire telecommunications system in South Africa is just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong! We have the ANC’s culture of hegemony to blame, as well as the fact that the party was born and raised in the struggle era. It is a liberation movement, and I can agree with DA leader Helen Zille on this one point: liberation movements generally don’t make good governments.

The ANC is at root a socialist party. The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as “1. A theory or policy of social organisation which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all people 2. A state or society in which things are held or used in common.” Which is very noble, but devilishly difficult to attain in the real world.

Human nature always tends to get in the way.

Those who are supposed to tend the “ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc” (that is, the state) almost never fail to do so to the advantage of society as a whole. They always do so to benefit a few individuals. Which brings us very nicely to Telkom.

It is chiefly responsible for the fact that broadband prices in this country have only recently begun to tumble. The company, in collusion with the government, is responsible for the poor penetration of the internet in South Africa.

As monopolies go, it doesn’t get any better than Telkom (Eskom aside, obviously). For a long time, it was given absolute rights over South Africa’s fixed-line internet connections, and was completely unafraid to milk the public, who depended on it for internet access, for every last penny. Broadband internet was, and still is, ridiculously expensive. Why would Telkom be afraid, if it had the backing of one Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, the former minister of communications? She aided and abetted Telkom in its plunder of the land, and I don’t think a single person who has had to fork out for ADSL under the old regime shed a tear when she passed on.

You should hear Toby Shapshak, the editor of Stuff magazine and Times Live columnist, go on about this. “Telkom have had no competition. They haven’t innovated and gotten themselves ready for competition. It’s the worst result of the protectionism. They’re being totally exposed now,” he said to me (and I thank him for his tremendous patience in guiding a clueless young padawan through the Telkom morass). The official reason why Telkom was protected by the government is that it was mandated to bring telecommunications infrastructure to those who had never had it. That never happened. Instead, the parastatal wilted under the scourge of mismanagement and cronyism. It’s no wonder that cellular networks took off as they did.

Telkom would have been in far more trouble had it not been for Vodacom. It owned a large stake in the cellular network provider. Vodacom was its cash cow. When it sold its stake to Vodafone, a lot of politically-connected people walked away from that deal with a lot of cash. Telkom’s empowerment partner was the notorious Elephant Consortium, perhaps the greatest example of the inherent flaws of black economic empowerment.

Even now, after other players have been allowed into the ADSL playing field, Telkom still milks the system. It still gets to charge you for using its copper lines to get the internet into your house or office. Tech entrepreneur Justin Spratt calls it the Telkom tax. “While Seacom opened the floodgates last year with falling prices for international bandwidth,” he wrote, “the reality is that the Telkom ‘last mile’ – the line from the exchange to your home or business – is still disgustingly expensive. On average, more than 70% of the cost of broadband access is attributable to Telkom’s punitive pricing of the last mile. This is the ‘Telkom tax’.”

What then, is to be done, one might ask.

Quite simply, unless the African National Congress goes away, these problems aren’t going away either. It isn’t in ANC DNA to let go of control. Socialist parties don’t work like that. Think of how the organisation had to function to survive during the struggle era. Things were very top-down. People at the bottom of the party did as they were told. The core leadership right at the top dictated absolutely everything. And rightly so – after all, this was an organisation under siege. The qualities that served the party so well during the exile years are the very things that make them such bad governors. Couple that with the greed of the tenderpreneurs and BEE crowd, and you have a very serious problem indeed. And since the ANC is under no political pressure whatsoever to change, things are going to take a long time to improve.

It’s not just Telkom. Eskom is crippling the country under similar circumstances and for similar reasons. Hopefully it won’t reduce the country to the Bronze Age before allowing someone else a go at providing electricity. It’s a similar story at Sentech and other parastatals.

Woe is us.


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