Broadly speaking

Yunus Carrim, Minister of Communications

The ‘new’ Minister of Communications has his work cut out and the pressure is on to, among others, fix South Africa’s broadband issues.

He was handed the proverbial poison chalice in July when President Jacob Zuma appointed him Minister of Communications after firing his scandal-riddled predecessor, Dina Pule. So far, though, it seems Yunus Carrim’s cup runneth over.

At the time of writing, his department was about to make public his much anticipated report on South Africa’s new Broadband Policy, and Carrim appeared to be very much the man of the moment. This, as Pule was battling even to hold on to her seat in Parliament after the Sunday Times reported that she was a liar, guilty of unlawful and improper conduct, and must quit Parliament.

According to the weekly paper, a provisional report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela into Pule showed that Pule’s R10 million donation for the ICT Indaba in Cape Town was unsolicited, unlawful and used to enrich herself; Pule admitted to Madonsela that Phosane Mngqibisa was her boyfriend despite her having denied this in public; Pule knew the Department of Communications funded overseas trips for Mngqibisa to which he was not entitled; and 

Pule and her staff lied to Parliament, the public protector, and the auditor general. 

In August 2013 Parliament’s Joint Committee on Ethics concluded its five-month investigation into Pule, finding that Pule and her top official lied to parliament and abused their power. The committee found that Pule wilfully misled the panel; caused improper benefits to be afforded to Mngqibisa on the basis of his relationship with her; and breached the Executive Members Ethics Code. 

In August Pule was reprimanded and suspended by Parliament for the scandal that saw her boyfriend benefit from state funding.

Enter Yunus Carrim, a man with a clean track record in government, albeit someone whose experience in ITC was somewhat limited. Leadership spoke to Minister Yunus Carrim, about the challenges his department faces and the future of the communications industry in South Africa.

It’s almost like a poison chalice, isn’t it? Do you see it that way?

It is highly challenging, yes. It is never near where it should be - this ICT sector as you call it. But it’s not as bad as it’s made out in the public domain, although we could certainly do far better. And that’s our responsibility as the minister and the deputy minister, Stella Ebrahims. But we can’t do it alone, as we keep saying. We need to work with the experts at the universities and with the other organisations in the sector and elsewhere. What we are utterly clear about is that we need a concerted effort from every sphere of the sector, every part of this ICT sector, to get things going. We’re lagging far behind. Our peers are beginning to outstrip us.

Do you see us as a third world, or a developing world society?

I don’t like the term ‘third world’ — it’s almost derogatory. We talk about a developing and a developed world, and I agree that we are part of the developing world. But we are also a relatively advantaged country within the developing world, and we certainly have the potential and capacity to do better than we’re doing in the ICT sector. So ICT progress is uneven overall, and it’s certainly nowhere near where it should be. In other words, yes, we’re very much part of the developing world. 

If we look at 20 years of ANC government, would you say that it has been lagging in applying its mind to the broadband situation and as a result now we are all way behind and paying for it financially in the business sector? 

Government has been quite open about that. The current leadership of the ministry is under enormous pressure to deliver. In fact, only this morning, we had this meeting about the final version of the broadband policy which we hope to take to Cabinet in the next two weeks. Recently we drew some 100 experts to comment on our broadband policy and on 11 and 12 November, we had some experts from the international community come to comment on the policy. We’re going to take it to strategic integrated projects, which is part government’s national infrastructure plan.

We have all these wonderful ideas, but we do very little. We talk of these projects and proposals, but we’ve heard all of this before. Doesn’t this frustrate you somewhat? 

It’s generally true. Most governments say more than they can actually do, and often don’t deliver what they have promised. But over the next few months, the ministry of communications and the department will begin to deliver. We went to Parliament in August with an 11-point programme. Now we’re going to report on progress. There has been significant progress, and in the next five weeks the outcomes of broadband on the cost of communications will be made known. 

You have previously have suggested that two private enterprises are delaying the digital process?

Yes, the tension between two major private sector broadcasters is doing precisely that.

You cannot say that, but I can; MultiChoice and are at loggerheads  with each other. 

I don’t want to get involved in that. The point I’m trying to make is that at the end of the day, government has given all of them a full hearing. The governors govern—we must govern now and we must make a decision. We’ve had them, we’ve tried to facilitate a consensus. It failed. Now we have to be decisive and go forward, and you can judge us in about eight weeks to see where we have gone. We are going to move very decisively, once cabinet has taken a decision on whether the set-up box should have an access system or not. And then we will be calling for the fullest co-operation of all stakeholders. We are very clear, we have to move rapidly. We have no choice. And we are going to be very decisive, and you can judge us by what we do, and not what we say. 

Without wishing to labour the subject, when government makes a decision on this, what if there is a legal objection? Will they be seen as the bad guys if they object?  

I hope they will be sensible. We have spent some six to eight weeks trying to secure consensus. Nobody can say that we have not included them in the discussions. And we have world-class facilitators. And they have not managed to secure that consensus. Nobody can say they have not been heard. And we hope they will be sensible and accept government’s right to make a decision. 

Let’s move on to Sentech, which is part of the whole ICASA set-up. Has it got the fundamental gear to carry out the work it needs to do?

First, all of the state-owned companies within our sector would do well with more funding. But the case for more funding becomes stronger if they use their limited resources and funds more productively and effectively. We can go to the Minister of Finance for more funds, but only if we can show that these state-owned companies have been effectively using the funds they currently have, especially as we have very tight budgets. 

And can you pleas tell us how this applies to the SABC?

We have recently set up a joint task team comprising representatives of the SABC, the Auditor General’s office, national treasury and ourselves to work with the SABC to ensure that they attend to the recommendations that have emerged from the auditor-general’s report. We are not going to interfere in the autonomy of the SABC. As a shareholder, we certainly have a right to exercise more stringent oversight of them, which is exactly what we are going to do through the joint task team. A brand new board has just been set up; we need to give them some time to settle in and then we are going to move more decisively, working with them to address among others, their financial and other challenges. 

You call government a shareholder in the SABC, but aren’t you the representatives of the shareholders, which is the public? 

Yes, exactly, and the SABC is of course a public broadcaster. 

Do you believe that the SABC provides what the public wants?

It could certainly do more to fulfil its responsibilities to the public. It has been constrained by financial, skills and other challenges. Sometimes the boards chosen have not been exactly what the law has required. But that’s a decision that Parliament makes. This time around I think it’s a reasonable board, but ultimately it’s not simply the skill sets that the board has that decides how the SABC performs. It’s how they work together as a collective. Moreover, there has to be much more decisive action on finding the right people to serve in management. Now there are several key positions that are vacant at the moment. Not least the CFO position, because of the suspension of the current CFO. Also the CEO position, around which there is an impasse and where we are assisting to find some settlement. And of course the head of news position. Now there are many other vacancies there too, and there’s a skills audit that the SABC’s done, which it itself admits has actually shown that it doesn’t have the necessary skills and we are working with them to address these issues through the joint task team without interfering in their autonomy or undermining the role of the SABC board.

So basically when you look the SABC and MultiChoice (DStv, MNET, etc.), can the SABC ever become competitive in the way it presently works?

We are concerned that experts say that South Africa is one of the 50 most concentrated media markets in the world. We as government and as the majority party are opposed to monopolies, in this sector as well as others. We are certainly concerned to provide for greater competition, more openness. And we are applying our minds. In fact my predecessor, Dina Pule, had already decided that in this financial year, we would press for ICASA to take forward a policy directive on premier content, and on the ownership of content by any particular company which gives it leverage that we think may not be consistent, but we should have the independent regulator decide on that, so no company feels that it’s being targeted in any particular way. So we’re going to issue the directive in due course. 

ICASA has drawn enormous criticism, ever since it was originally the IBA. It has recently redeemed itself slightly in the public’s eye by cutting the cost of communication with Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and so on. But it has not improved itself on the broadcasting side. If we look at South Africa, and if we look at licenses in the United Kingdom, we see that there are over 400. In Australia there are 300, in the US 1 200. We have only about 80 licenses granted. Is it not contradictory to say that we are one of the 50 most concentrated media markets?

 I’m not so sure whether one can draw easy analogies between developed countries like the UK and our own country. They have a different history and culture and longer evolution of democracy. But I take your point. Nobody I know of in the sector has a good word to say about ICASA, except as you suggested now with its recent decision to put out draft regulations where it is providing for substantial reduction in the cost of communications, cellphones in particular. Now that is merely a draft set of regulations. I know there is considerable pressure on ICASA from stakeholders in the mobile cellphone industry not to actually not go ahead with those proposals. ICASA is independent, and we cannot prescribe to them. We hope, however, that they will stand their ground, and whatever decision they take will be based on sound judgement. Now in respect of broadcasting, I agree, they have had hearings recently and what I understand is that they are going to be issuing more licenses. They tell us repeatedly that they need more funding, research and technical support, and we said that we understand, but given that there are tight budgetary constraints, it’s not going to be easy to secure those resources, so why don’t you show us what you’re doing with the limited resources that you have?

You came into a new field and had to learn very quickly. I just hope that the government is sensible enough to maintain your position and to enact some of your policies. 

I’ve been in Parliament for 20 years, and a political activist for 40 years. The new generation is emerging and they rightly say that they want to be in Parliament and in government. I don’t think it matters really who comes in. What matters is that the work that the deputy minister and I are doing at the moment becomes the foundation for the next five-year term, 2014 – 2019. I would hope that the President, whoever he appoints, will decide not to unravel what has been done, because we’ve done it in a very consultative way. Personally I’ve met between 160-200 organisations in the last year now, and we have another 30 or 40 pending. Some of them have met several times. So whatever we are doing at the moment up to at least April or May next year when the elections are held, has been done through concerted consultation. 

A final point: If offered this position after the elections, would you take it on?

I can’t really answer that. It’s not an appropriate question in a way given the tradition in the movement. Let me tell you, I have been serving here since July, and if the President rang me this afternoon and said I want you to go be our ambassador in Mongolia, I will accept it. In short, if I’m not returned to Parliament in April or May or whenever the elections are held, and if I’m not returned as the minister, I’m cool with that. What I would like to see, though, is that the person who comes in to replace me builds on the foundation of what we have said, whether I am here or not. But I’ll tell you this: I’m not going to give up my interest. It’s so stimulating, this area, that I’ll continue reading Popular Mechanics for example. So I’ll continue my interest in this area as well as in local government. I’ll serve the country come what may. 

Tony Sanderson and David Capel

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