Reorganised sector serves Zuma’s Orwellian agenda

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A WEEK ago, President Jacob Zuma announced his new executive. In his listing of the bloated Cabinet, the information and communication sector was stunned by the announcement of not one, but two ministries to oversee communications — one charged with oversight of telecommunications and postal services, and another, it seems, to shape what we’ve been told is the “good story” South Africa has to tell, including by means of broadcasting services.

Now, if truth be told, we in the sector don’t know what to expect, as clarity about what these two new ministries’ mandates will be and how they will relate with one another is yet to be communicated.

What we do know, however, is that, as usual, things continue to be unusual in all things related to the business of communications.

In Zuma’s previous administration, we saw the communications ministry wracked by instability (five ministers in five years) and the scandalous abuse of power and public resources by former minister Dina Pule. The revolving-door syndrome plaguing the communications ministry has had severe implications for a range of turnkey projects that promised to bring fundamental change to the lives of people and the economy.

The SABC, a key institution for the promotion of democratic values and which serves the information needs of the vast majority of the country, has been used as a battleground for the advancement of the sectional interests of the politically powerful. The weakened state it was left in by bankruptcy, a dysfunctional board and politically expedient executive directors has left it open for exploitation by commercial forces, most notably through a singularly unholy alliance with a particular subscription-TV giant.

To complicate things further, the digital migration project initiated in 2007— set to be one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in this country — has seen no movement less than a year ahead of the international completion deadline. The valuable spectrum the project promised to release, which can be used to usher in a new information age through the roll-out of affordable mobile telecommunications and broadband services to every household in any settlement, remains locked in. Again, the chief source of this constipation has been this same unholy alliance between a deliberately weakened public-service broadcaster legislated to put people first and a powerful commercial broadcaster principally driven by profits.

Instead of bringing stability in leadership and order to what is already a chaotic situation, Zuma’s latest fragmentation and reorientation of the communications ministry has taken the country back years in relation to the global trajectory towards information and communications technology (ICT) convergence, leaving further chaos in its wake. For one, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), which is legislated to regulate both communications technologies and content but has been largely ineffectual as a result of regulatory capture caused by a lack of capacity and resources, bizarrely has been brought into the content-driven communications ministry.

Furthermore, the ICT policy review process which both business and civil society spent years advocating in order to bring alignment between the policies regulating broadcasting, telecommunications and postal services, and enable innovation and promote true citizenship in an emerging information society, has been brought to a grinding halt. It remains unclear to the communications ministries and the ICT Review Panel itself, let alone the ICT sector, which ministry it will now fall under and what agenda it will be required to drive.

What is, perhaps, more odious about this fragmentation of ministries is the strategic reorientation of the communications ministry into the government’s PR(opaganda) machine, both locally and abroad. What is clearly apparent is that the split is premised on distinguishing communication technologies from its content. What is, perhaps, least surprising about the constitution of the new ministry is its absorption of the SABC.

The effective downgrading of the Government Communication and Information Service (GCIS) and Brand SA from the Presidency and their alignment with the SABC only spells out the consummation of the Zuma government’s long-standing campaign to mainstream the “nation-building”, “good story” narrative.

Indeed, this “good” story has seen the fervent support of the SABC’s enfant terrible, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who is equally intent on seeing his outlandish 70% “good” news proposal become formalised into SABC news-making policy. Certainly, the proposal has become de facto policy at the SABC, seeing conversations about the ruling party without the ruling party to manage them being suppressed, the superficial coverage of the Nkandla scandal being controlled, and staff being told in no uncertain terms that they are under surveillance by spies, in line with the apartheid-era National Key Points Act.

With former spy boss Siyabonga Cwele at its helm, the bad news is that it doesn’t appear as though the ministry of telecommunications and postal services can offer a way out of what reads as the makings of an Orwellian state. Cwele has also been implicated in the government’s furious efforts to restrict and cover up the truth about the Nkandla scandal and has been a part of the deliberate misinformation of the public on the matter. Admittedly, he has now been tasked with a new mandate, but in an age of increased surveillance through the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act, it appears that having a former securocrat in charge of telecommunications policy can only mean more of the same.

What is clear is that South Africans have more to be concerned about with the new communications regime than not. However, in spite of the lamentable state of affairs, there are clear battles in the communications and information management war to be fought and won. The first is to make a reality the SABC that was promised to us by the ruling party as early as 1992. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa then assured us of “a broadcast service committed to providing full and accurate information to all South Africans, and one which is protected from interference by any special interests — be they political, economic or cultural”.

This promise can be realised only by wresting the SABC as South Africa’s largest mass-communication medium, and indeed the continent’s, from direct accountability to a politically appointed minister and make it directly answerable to its public through Parliament as a chapter 9 institution. Similarly, instead of “making up” the ministry of communications, Icasa needs to be given the necessary capacity, independence and power to effectively regulate a rapidly transforming broadcasting and telecommunications sector, protected from commercial and political capture. This, too, can be done only by its complete transformation into a chapter 9 institution.

More than anything, however, a deliberate effort is needed to secure the future and stability of the broadcasting and communications sector. To encourage competition and innovation and bring true access to diverse, quality and affordable services, South Africa needs stability and co-operation between the two new ministries guided by a shared vision of a converged approach to ICT and putting people before profits.

• Phamodi is co-ordinator of the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition.

This article was first published in the Business Day on 02 June 2014.

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