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An open letter to shiny new Communications Minister Khu...

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Opinionista

An open letter to shiny new Communications Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

The new communications minister could turn this crucial portfolio into a strength that grows the economy, instead of being a dumping ground for useless ANC deployees, as we have come to expect from the past few ministers

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

First, don’t do anything your predecessors did. Really, not a thing.

Faith Muthambi may have been the nadir of incompetence, but she is just one of many communications ministers who were clueless and inept. Most recently Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and her deputy Pinky Kekana truly embarrassed themselves, and the whole country in the world’s view, for their hare-brained scheme to reclassify smartphones as televisions so they could charge every mobile owner a TV licence fee. Ndabeni-Abrahams broke Covid lockdown regulations in their first month last year, had her WhatsApp hacked, and doesn’t know which European country Zurich is in.

She was also co-chair of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) commission but failed to have any vision whatsoever to improve the country or the lives of its citizens. Instead, she will be eternally remembered for Zürichgate and seemingly spending all her time interfering with the SABC’s attempts to get its house in order. Instead of looking to the future, as the whole concept of 4IR implies, she was resolutely stuck in the past – trying to rewrite reality to fix the SABC’s finances.

Second, if you want to truly fix the SABC, have a good product. Without good content, people will watch another channel or YouTube. It’s really quite easy, Honourable Minister, just ask MultiChoice. If you have something people want to watch, then they will. And advertisers will want to book advertising.

Third, fire everyone in management at the SABC who was promoted by former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng. I’d say fire everyone, but there are a few good eggs with useful institutional knowledge.

I bet you a forensic auditor would only need half an hour to find several improprieties or irregular expenditure in just about every department. The SABC management’s incompetence is legendary – having once had none other than Dali Mpofu as its chief executive, who hamstrung the corporation for several years in legal wrangling after he was fired, then rehired, then fired again. The SABC management’s usual incompetence is seemingly only eclipsed by that of the financial managers and, well, anyone in accounts.

Fourth, fix the spectrum problem. Quickly. The Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) is being sued by Telkom, MTN and eMedia over its plans to license new spectrum. The auctions were due in March but have been delayed by these legal matters. The last time wireless frequencies were auctioned in SA was for 3G. It’s nuts. Go crack a few skulls and get the first spectrum auction in 14 years to happen.

Also forget about the dubious and improbable concept of a wholesale open-access network. Based on what Mexico did, it has predictably gone bust.

Fifth, what is it with import duties on smartphones? It’s an indirect tax on communications and the internet. The GSM Association has long argued these import tariffs inhibit economic growth, which is catalysed by better communications. I’m not even an economist and it makes sense to me.

Sixth, give Icasa some money, please. And let it hire highly qualified staff. The regulator is weakened by lack of resources, which means it can’t do its job properly.

One key area is the insanely long time it takes Icasa to certify any electronic device with wireless functionality. Distributors and tech firms consistently tell of unnecessary delays, favouritism and what sounds very much like good-old, Bosasa-style corruption.

Seventh, fire the deadwood in your department – or anyone who treats their job like they work at Home Affairs or the police’s Crime Intelligence as if it was a paid holiday.

Eighth, set targets and deliverables for your ministry, for the SABC and for all the forgotten agencies and departments you oversee.

Finally, this is your moment to shine. If you forget ANC politics, look past the whining of the disgruntled SABC unions, and see the bigger picture. Silicon Valley has no gold, no coal, no oil, no natural resources – but is a thriving economy inside California’s thriving economy. Please try to replicate it. The country will thank you. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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