If you wondered why the telecoms industry in SA is still in the doldrums, look no further than last week’s display of ministerial malpractice — nay, malfeasance — by the two departments of communications. First Siyabonga Cwele, the spy boss turned minister of telecommunications & postal services, issues an ICT white paper so bizarrely unenforceable and anti-business that it’ll be the laughing stock of ministerial documents for years.
But arguably the maddest moment, in a week during which Hlaudi Motsoeneng defied parliament and "mesmerisingly" talked about himself in the third person, came from communications minister Faith Muthambi.
Former government spokesman Mzwanele Manyi tweeted that Motsoeneng (who was reappointed to a senior position at the SABC after the supreme court of appeals said he had been illegally installed as the state broadcaster’s COO) "was on the right side of the Employment Equity Act with regards to his qualifications. SABC governance issues are board matters, not Hlaudi".
Muthambi’s spokesman Mish Molakeng issued a statement saying: "The ministry wishes to state that Manyi is no longer an adviser to the minister of communications and does not speak on behalf of the ministry."
Manyi, who was the boss of the government communication and information systems from 2011 to 2012 and a director-general of the labour department before that, appeared to have been publicly rebuked.
But not for long. Within hours, poor Molakeng was forced to issue a retraction, disassociating Muthambi from the earlier statement which had put distance between her and Manyi.
"The ministry of communications would like to withdraw and retract the statement that was issued earlier regarding Mzwanele Manyi. The statement was issued without the authorisation of the minister. Apologies for inconvenience and parties concern [sic]."
Just when you thought communications ministers couldn’t be any more like characters from a Monty Python script, they descend from the ridiculous to the thoroughly absurd.
Suddenly, even Dina Pule doesn’t look like the most hapless and corrupt minister to have held this poisoned chalice of a portfolio.
Back in the real world, Cwele’s self-lauded national integrated ICT white paper is another disaster waiting to unfold.
The bizarre and probably legally contestable plan has been approved by cabinet and is due to be gazetted. It calls for "measures to support a paradigm shift towards nonexclusive assignment of highly contested spectrum in bands where demand exceeds the amount of spectrum available."
That means cellular operators and providers of wireless broadband won’t "own" the spectrum they’ve paid for, or have been using for years, and might even have it taken away from them. These networks have invested tens of billions of rand on cellular networks that make wireless broadband and telephony possible.
Cwele — who appears to be most concerned about beating Muthambi in an ongoing, destructive feud — will certainly face legal challenges and has probably scared off investors. It’s just madness that such an impractical attitude towards spectrum has made it into a white paper.
This new plan could conceivably result in spectrum being taken away from the operators, and given to a "wholesale" operator for an open-access network. The last time government tried this, with broadcast distributor Sentech, it cost hundreds of millions of rand and failed miserably.
Now, the dysfunctional communications departments want to set up a wholesale system, but can’t even get the set-top boxes issue resolved. Nor can they puzzle out who works (and speaks) for whom.