COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER FAILS TO COMMUNICATE (published in Daily Maverick on 31 July 2019)

The Daily Maverick article

Government policy on licensing high-demand radio frequency spectrum and developing a wireless open access network is a key component of preparing South Africa for the fourth industrial revolution. Why, then, are we still waiting for Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams to pronounce on the matter?

Back in the day, when Black Consciousness was fashionable, I spent an unusual amount of time (at least, for someone like me) in the company of a few of its leading proponents. Over the years, I was rigorously schooled in the concept of black pride – which resonated with me as a middle class (at the time) white woman confronting my own identity issues. I’ve never forgotten what I learned, hence my interest in black excellence.

As Tshepang Sebulela wrote in 2018 in Huffington Post, “What our society needs are black faces, black success stories and black names that define and inspire black excellence — faces and stories meant to leave one … longing for greatness, demonstrating that black people work hard despite the ongoing narrative.”

As the Cabinet minister responsible for giving the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) “policy direction” in licensing high-demand radio frequency spectrum and developing a wireless open access network, Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams caught my eye. That’s because my job is to monitor and report on public policy for Legalbrief Today.

So, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his economic stimulus and recovery plan in August 2018 that, “within the next few weeks”, government would initiate the process of allocating high-demand radio spectrum to “enable licensing” and – just three days later – a draft policy direction for Icasa was gazetted for comment – I was delighted. Facilitating access by new entrants to the telecommunications sector, establishing a viable, sustainable wireless open access network, increasing competition, promoting investment and reducing data costs had to be good for SA, right?

At the time, Siyabonga Cwele was the telecommunications and postal services minister, with Ndabeni-Abrahams as his deputy. Two months after the document was gazetted, when she replaced him in a Cabinet reshuffle, News24 described the new minister as “a rising star in the ANC’s top structures” and a “strong supporter” of Ramaphosa’s 2017 ANC presidential campaign.

She reportedly cut her political teeth as a member of the ANC Youth League during “the days of Julius Malema, Fikile Mbalula and Ronald Lamola”, which explained her feistiness as a backbencher and member of the National Assembly’s Communications Committee before becoming deputy minister in 2017. She caught my eye then, too. Feistiness is what SA needs in its leaders, along with integrity and the ability to get things done – at least in my view.

On 20 June 2019, in his State of the Nation Address, Ramaphosa said that “within the next month”, Ndabeni-Abrahams would issue policy direction to Icasa that would enable it to “commence the spectrum licensing process”. On Thursday 11 July, the minister confirmed in a budget vote speech that, “within the next seven working days”, she would “issue the final policy and policy direction to Icasa”. By my reckoning, that meant the long-awaited document would be published on Monday 22 July at the very latest.

But on Friday 19 July, Icasa issued a four-line media statement on behalf of the ministry advising that, while “the policy direction on unassigned high-demand spectrum” had been finalised, it was still “going through the requisite processes” and could not be published at that stage. It seemed odd that a statement on delayed policy direction (to be provided by the minister to Icasa) should be posted on the Icasa website and nowhere else, which I noted in my report on the development.

On Thursday 25 July, a statement on Cabinet’s meeting the previous day announced that Cabinet had approved the policy and policy direction and that, “in the next few days”, Ndabeni-Abrahams would release it and “brief the media”. This did suggest that the “finalised” policy to which Icasa had referred had not, in fact, been finalised at all. How can any policy or policy direction be finalised without Cabinet approval?

The eagerly anticipated document was gazetted the following afternoon, when the minister held what appears to have been an impromptu media briefing on which TechCentral reported in some detail – which is just as well, because no official media statement was released. In fact, the last time either department for which Ndabeni-Abrahams is responsible posted anything of importance on an official website was 9 July (in the case of the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services) and 18 July (in the case of the Department of Communications). Astonishingly, the minister’s budget vote speech has yet to appear on the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services’ website – making her unique among her fellow Cabinet members in that regard.

Subscribers to Legalbrief Today received reports on each step of this final phase of the process, in all its embarrassing detail. So did my handful of Twitter followers in tweets tagged @Stellarated, @PresidencyZA and @CyrilRamaphosa. Sadly, this has resulted in my being blocked by the minister from @Stellarated. Nevertheless, I regret none of my pronouncements on Ndabeni-Abrahams’ failure to communicate adequately on the missed deadline. Neither do I regret drawing her attention to the fact that one of her departments needs to update its website.

As minister of communications and digital technologies, she should either ensure that her subordinates use the numerous platforms available (including Twitter and Facebook) to inform ordinary South Africans like me of the latest developments on vitally important policy matters – or do so herself.

By blocking me on Twitter, the minister accomplished nothing positive. I have never been a follower of @Stellarated anyway. I simply visited the account in the hope that she might have tweeted something, anything about the until-quite-recently elusive policy direction. Sadly, when a friend looked on Tuesday morning, there was still nothing to be found.

Given the unfortunate events in recent years in government and parliamentary circles, I see it as my civic duty to point out the shortcomings of our political representatives, regardless of race, gender or ideological persuasion. I was once blocked from DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen’s Twitter account but have since been reinstated. At the time, I had criticised him for behaving in the National Assembly as if it was the House of Commons and he was not amused.

I’ve also commented in my reports on unfortunate utterances in parliamentary committee meetings by the late Dene Smuts and the DA’s Kevin Mileham. Whenever I see poor performance on the part of ANC MPs, that, too, is reported – as former National Assembly Trade and Industry Committee chairperson Joan Fubbs will confirm, along with many other former committee chairs going back several years. It’s what I do and what my readers expect.