The ICT Sector, Me and the Minister: Mostly Light and Hazy Thoughts with a Promise of Substance Soon…..and with Apologies to Nat Nakasa
Minister of Communications
South African National Editors Forum Nat Nakasa Awards Dinner
27 July 2013
An Accidental Invitation
I called at the Mail and Guardian’s office for an interview with a journalist recently, and met fleetingly with Editor Nic Dawes, whom I have known since he served in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. I think I sort of fell into his lap. As he hadn’t yet sorted out who’d speak tonight. And there I turned up in the midst of his deep ruminations about who, just who could he find to speak at this function?? And so when he saw me unexpectedly turn up at his office his face lit up – ah, he thought! And shortly after the exchange of some pleasantries (so relations between journalists and the government can’t be all THAT bad!), he said, hey, Yunus, why don’t you speak at the SANEF Nat Nakasa Dinner next Saturday? I was cautious. “But I won’t be ready to speak to you guys by then”, I said. “I’m still finding my feet, and have so many commitments over the next two weeks that I just won’t find the time to read and reflect on the role of the media in South Africa today. Some time later, ya, okay, I’ll come to speak at SANEF if you want”. “No, no he said, you don’t have to say anything major, see it as a sort of meet and greet meeting, and you can speak on anything really.” “I’ll come back to you”, I said. And then thought, ah, what the heck, let me come on Nic’s terms. Of course, I’m embellishing a bit here about our exchange (but, hey, I’m a politician: what do you expect??), but it’s more or less how I’ve got here. The point of this all: well, my speech is mostly light and thin, and you know who to blame! Ya, ya, that’s another trait of us politicians: we’re never to blame, always it’s others. And this time, it’s Nic. But I promise that if you want me back at all, next time I’ll exchange with you more usefully.
I’ve come too because although I know some of you, I don’t know most. And I want to hear from you. So I understand from Nic that there’ll be some space for some comments from you tonight.
I thought then, given how I’ve got here, and to cover my back, I should entitle my little speech, if it’s even that, “The ICT Sector, Me and the Minister: Mostly Light and Hazy Thoughts with a Promise of Substance Soon…..and Apologies to Nat Nakasa”
Never mind how I got here, let me say, I’m honoured to be here particularly at this SANEF function named after the wonderful Nat Nakasa. And I congratulate you on organising this Annual Award and those who won the award previously and the person who wins it today. I was exposed to Nakasa’s world and that of Can Themba in the 1970s when I was a student at the University of Durban-Westville (UDW). I’m not sure why, but he was fairly well read among the activists there then. I haven’t, I’m afraid, read him since, but I remember being touched and enchanted by his writings. And if I recall correctly, I think I also read about him. Anyway, it’s great, great that you have this awards function in his name. I see the awards function also honours Stephen Wrottesley. I’m afraid I don’t know much about him beyond the brief profile I got from Nic. But I’ll look him up soon.
The Role of a Minister
Now, I know sections of the media and the IT industry have reservations about me. Ya, okay, the guy works hard and has been in politics for a while, but what does he really know about ICT, they say. And, of course, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and others express concern that as a South African Communist Party (SACP) Politburo member I’m going to go for nationalisation! Well, I’ll tell you what! In the interests of openness and transparency (and, yes, government is capable of this), let me say that as soon as the President appointed me, I broke into a heart-rending rendition of the Internationale. And, of course, I immediately googled Joseph Stalin on his views on broadband and digital terrestrial television and local loop unbundling. And you know what, Joe is cool about this, he’s all for it, except that he wasn’t sure about which type of Set Top Boxes were most ideologically sound! Well, he can’t know everything, can he?? But there! He agrees with most of what the major stakeholders in the ICT sector say! Okay, okay, I, err, don’t agree with the methods he insists on (you know him!) of how to get there, but please be assured he fully supports rapid transformation of the ICT sector. Oh, by the way, I forgot to check what he thinks about the role of the media in this particular phase of the unfolding National Democratic Revolution in South Africa. Hmmmm…Anyway, this thing about me being a Communist and therefore bad for the ICT sector is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a red herring…
In any case, I’m not entirely new to the ICT sector, well, the print media at least. I see last year’s recipient of the Nat Nakasa Award was Joe Thloloe. Well, our paths crossed in 1976 – not by choice, but thanks to the security police. Three of us detained at the UDW and others from the then Natal were taken to Modderbee Prison in Benoni where we found Joe Thloloe, Peter Magubane, Duma Ndlovu and Wille Bokala among other journalists from The World and elsewhere. Well, we were there for just over four months, and following a chance exchange with Joe, I actually ultimately ended up with a scholarship to study journalism in the UK. Joe asked once what I was studying. I told him I was doing a BA but really wanted to study journalism. It was only offered at Rhodes University. And in those days if you were Black – meaning a person of colour – you could only study at a White university if the degree you wanted to do was not offered at your racially or ethnically designated university and you sought an exemption from the Minister of Education. As with others, I was not prepared to apply for this exemption and chose instead to study for a BA in Sociology and English at UDW. Joe, who was the President of the Union of Black Journalists (UBJ) at the time, told me that he had been to a recent conference, I think in Maseru, at which the British National Union of Journalists (NUJ) was present, and had offered to fund young South Africans interested in studying journalism in England. He said we should follow that up when we were released from detention. As it happened, a few weeks after we got released, Joe was re-detained as part of the “PAC 18 Trial” in Bethal. But following a newspaper article of the security police raiding, if that’s not too strong a word, the flat where I was staying in Durban after a 21 March Sharpeville commemoration at UDW in 1977, Phil Mthimkhulu, the secretary of the UBJ and I connected, and it subsequently came to be that I was offered a scholarship to study journalism at the Darlington College of Technology in the UK. Interestingly, I received an email of good wishes for my new post from Govin Reddy, who was also detained with us in 1976, this morning and we spoke over the phone. He is, of course, a previous SABC Head of Radio and M&G Board member, and is still involved in the broader journalistic sector.
As a freelance journalist, I was also fleetingly active in the Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA) in the mid-80s and attended the Mdantsane Conference in 1984 where MWASA sort of split into Congress-oriented and Black Consciousness-oriented wings under the leadership of Zwelakhe Sisulu. I remember writing a piece for the South African Labour Bulletin on the conference. I have also edited several newsletters and other publications of the broad democratic movement and am currently editing the SACP’s African Communist and Umsebenzi when funds and enough articles allow us to publish.
Yes, but fine, having studied journalism in 1977 – which in the ICT world is some 5000 years ago – and doing some freelance journalism and editing the erratic publications of the SACP doesn’t quite qualify me to be Minister of Communications. Agreed! But let me assure you: I can switch my cell phone on and SMS and use internet and do a lot of other things too! And I’m very keen to learn more. And even if my heart is still in local government, my mind and body and will are very much in communications now. Anyway, I have no choice! Working with others, I just have to do what’s necessary and urgent! And believe me, I mean to!
And you tell me: where in the advanced industrialised democracies do you have Ministers of Communications with Ph.ds in ICT? And why would it follow that if you have technical qualifications in the ICT sector you’d make a useful Minister? Yes, it would help to have some technical qualification and expertise and experience, but it’s not a pre-condition for the post. The Minister of Communications, in any case, doesn’t on his or her own determine ICT policies. They are shaped through collective engagement, including through Cabinet as a whole. The Minister’s role, as part of various collectives, is to define the goals and provide effective political and strategic oversight over the Department, SOEs and other relevant structures to ensure that the goals are achieved. Surely what’s more important than the technical qualifications of a politician is what he or she gets done and how? I’m a politician, not a technical expert, and an important measure of how useful I can be, it seems to me, is the technical expertise and experience I draw on. And if there’s one thing that’s really come across these past 16 days in my new post, it’s that we have a lot of expertise and experience in this sector that we are just not cohering and making effective use of. I have received over 70 requests for meetings from organisations and individuals through letters, SMSes and phone calls – and, believe me, between Deputy Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, senior department officials and I will be meeting almost all, if not all, of them. We have also reached out to commentators who have written in the media about what they think we should do, and are arranging to meet them.
But there’s no populism here, let me stress. We can’t endlessly consult before we do. The first round of consultations that have drawn in mainly the SOCs and other public entities and will from mid next week involve NGOs, community organisations and experts will end on 5 August and shortly thereafter we will set our strategy and programme for the period until the 2014 elections as part of developing a five-year strategic framework for 2014-19 that the incoming executive will take forward. Of course, consultations will continue, but there also has to action. Ultimately, as consensual as we may seek to be, government has to govern – and the masses out there will have to judge us, not just through elections, but various other means too.
For Now, Where are we Heading?
So as at now, where broadly is our Ministry heading? What is a tentative outline of our overall strategy and programme? There’s still, as explained, further consultation pending, and we’ll be clearer in about 10 days, but for now here’s what.
We will work within the frameworks provided in the National Development Plan (NDP) (contested though parts of it are), New Growth Path (NGP), the ANC’s Mangaung Policy Conference Resolutions and the relevant government ICT policies adopted since 1994.
Our overall strategy has 6 key aspects for now:
1. We are working on greater unity and coherence of the Department of Communication (DOC), filling in the critical vacant posts, and ensuring the Department functions in a more consensual way with ICT stakeholders and is more sensitive to the needs of consumers.
2. The ICT sector is too fragmented and fractious. Of course, there are the inevitable differences and the competition but there is enough common interest that serves us all for a more consensual and cooperative terrain to be forged.
3. With the 2014 elections looming, we have about 9 months left before the end of our term. We need to review the programme of the Department and set realistic and realisable targets for the next 9 months.
4. But, importantly, we have to be strategic about what targets we choose for the 9 months ahead. They can’t just be ad hoc. They need to be linked to both creating a much firmer foundation for the next five-year term for faster ICT delivery and providing key elements of a 2014-2019 strategic framework.
5. Finalising the ICT Policy Review, with a Green Paper within 3 months and a White Paper or substantial progress towards it. Our programmes and activities should feed into and take into account the Policy Review underway.
6. Locating the Policy Review and overall programme of the Department within the NDP, NGP and Mangaung ICT Policy Framework.
As for our programme for the next 9 months, what, for now, are our key elements?
1. We have to sensibly and sensitively set a firm foundation for a further reduction in the costs of communication.
2. We want to see realistic progress in broadband becoming more extensive, affordable and speedier. We intend to finalise the government’s National Broadband Policy and Implementation Programme within 3 months.
3. The digital divide between the haves and have-nots needs to be reduced, and we are going to place much greater stress on delivering in rural and underserviced areas.
4. The SABC and other SOCs and public entities in the ICT sector need to be made more stable and effective.
5. The roll-out of Digital Migration must begin before the end of this year.
So this basically is it. Given the challenging terrain, limited time and lack of resources, we have to be realistic about what’s possible. There are no guarantees that all this just said will get done. But what there is a guarantee of is that there will be significant progress in getting there and there will be a much more consensual yet decisive approach to doing so. And it’s not, let me stress, up to government alone to deliver. We all need to work together. We all need to play our part. Our important task as the Ministry is to create the space for this. And that we will certainly do!
These Past Two Weeks
So what have we been doing in the past two weeks?
1. Meetings with the senior managers and the staff generally of the Department to make it clear that the Deputy Minister and I will be exercising stringent strategic and political oversight of the Department.
2. A meeting was held with the SABC Board, management, staff and trade unions. A Joint Task Team (JTT) has been established to among other issues deal with:
a. Finalising the shareholder compact.
b. Finalising key managerial positions.
c. Digital Migration.
d. The financial challenges
The JTT has met and we will be back at the SABC next week to follow up on issues.
3. With due recognition of its independence, a meeting was held with the council, management and staff of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to see what support can be offered to ensure that it’s more effective.
4. Of course, Telkom is a listed company, but government is a major shareholder and policy maker, and, of course, we need to manage these two roles in ways that are consistent with corporate governance principles and norms. We discussed how we can help to create a more enabling environment for Telkom to be more effective in advancing the country’s needs. We also got a report on Telkom’s Broadband policy and infrastructure.
5. We met the Board and Management of the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) and stressed the need for them to use their limited resources more productively and function more effectively. We also urged that the disciplinary and other issues relating to allegations of misconduct be dealt with swiftly. A JTT has been set up to take issues forward.
6. A meeting was held with the ICT Policy Review Panel to get a report on progress and set firmer deadlines. We committed to providing more resources and other support to ensure the Panel is able to function better and quicker.
7. There have also been discussions with representatives of trade unions, civil society organisations and experts.
Meetings are due with South African Post Office, Sentech and National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa (NEMISA) soon and a variety of business, NGO, trade union and other organisations, and individual experts and commentators in the ICT sector.
Some Tentative Thoughts About the Print Media
So what about the print media?
Of course, I’ll meet SANEF too and other relevant organisations. I know that people senior to me in government and the ANC have been meeting with you, and I’ll confer with them on those exchanges, and we can work towards a meeting with SANEF and our Ministry and Department.
Of course, there’ll inevitably be tensions between a government and the independent media. And, of course, an independent, vibrant, robust media is vital to a thriving democracy. But Press freedom is not the be-all and end-all of freedoms. It has to be balanced with other rights in the Constitution, including the right to equality, privacy and human dignity. We are moreover a developing democracy, with huge class, race and gender inequalities, and we are in several senses a fragile democracy. Of course, you must be independent and vigorous but perhaps more than in established democracies, you have to be responsible. And perhaps even more than in established democracies you have to report accurately. And you too, without forgoing your rights and responsibilities and, in ways that are indeed consistent with it, have a role to play in contributing to nation-building and development in this challenged country of ours. Can you be above that, given where this country is right now?
There are maybe too general points being made. Let me think more about what I’ve just said and engage with you further sometime.
It seems to me that the gulf between the government and the media is not as great as you make it out to be but it is certainly greater than it needs to and we can afford it to be. As government we need to reach out to you and engage with you more, but you also need to reach out and engage with us more.
In a democracy, it’s the majority party that provides the policy frameworks for government to engage with other stakeholders and the public and shape policies and bills for parliament to consider. How many of you have actually looked at the ANC’s Mangaung Conference resolution on communications?
If you look at it, you’ll see that the gap between the ANC and the print media has narrowed somewhat since the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane Conference. There’s a better framework for us to have a discussion, it seems to me.
The resolution notes:
Pursuant to the ANC resolution on a Parliamentary MAT (Media Appeals Tribunal) Inquiry, the print media established its own Regulatory Review Mechanism. This led to the publication of the Press Council Report and further established the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) which conducted the wide ranging review of the current regulatory system of the print media….
That amongst others, the reports led to the review of the Press Code and the restructuring of the self-regulatory (mechanism) which is ongoing.
There is uncertainty on the extent of the implementation of the entire recommendations of the PFC most of which the ANC supported. (my emphasis)
It acknowledges that the PFC recommendations:
go a long way in responding to the ANC (2007) conference resolutions. There remains a lot of work to be done to ensure the full implementation of the principles guiding the ANC resolution and the PFC report. Also, the Parliamentary Inquiry using the PFC report as a basis remains relevant.
The ANC believes that parliament should conduct an inquiry on the desirability and feasibility of a media appeals tribunal within the framework of the country’s Constitution and notes that:
The envisaged parliamentary process should reinforce the South African Constitution Act 108 of 1996; review the existing media accountability mechanisms; balance the individual’s rights to dignity and freedom of expression and freedom of the media; and review the privacy laws as well as those dealing with libel and defamation.
It also stresses that:
The recommendations of the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) should be included in the wide raging Parliamentary Inquiry on the regulatory system for print media.
The resolution also notes that:
South Africans must enjoy the freedom of expression in the context of a diverse media environment that is reflective of their situations and daily experiences.
To encourage media diversity, the resolution refers to the need to “introduce an economic empowerment charter to promote Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment in the sector” and “address the availability of print media” in indigenous languages. The resolution also refers to the need for the Media Development and Diversity Agency to be strengthened and the Competition Commission to focus on anti-competitive practices within the sector.
A constant theme of the ANC is also that there is too much of a dissonance between the print media and the majority of the people. For example, the 2007 Polokwane Conference resolution notes:
The reality arising out of this situation is that the majority of South Africans do not have media that report and project their needs, aspirations and points of views onto the national discourse.
Of course, we are in a fundamentally different context from that of Nat Nakasa’s, but we need maybe to ask if there’s not some resonance even today in what Nadine Gordimer said about how Nakasa saw journalism then: “He felt that day-to-day journalism floated on the surface of African life … like oil indicating the presence of a submarine.…”?
It is crucial, it seems to me, for better dialogue between the government and the media on how we manage our respective roles that the recommendations of the PFC are effectively implemented.
There are several other issues that time and occasion rule out dealing in depth with, but I raise some of them cursorily for maybe a useful exchange sometime in the future.
• Ownership and control of the media and its implications.
• The race, class and gender issues that the media mediates and is imbued in.
• The different senses in which the media might be independent, including independence from owners and advertisers.
• The necessary balances in fulfilling the media’s important role of exposing corruption. This would include, for example, seeking rigorously to ensure that innocent people are not victimised; that the broader structural and other contexts of corruption are also dealt with instead of the media ultimately serving to reinforce racial stereotypes about it and notions that there is some biological basis for it; and the need to expose private sector corruption as actively as public sector corruption.
• The need to recognise both government’s achievements and failures.
• The need for the government and the ANC-led movement to be more open to the media and the need for the media to avoid, wittingly and unwittingly, advancing the interests of political factions.
• The juniorisation of newsrooms and related issues such as the standards of journalism and the training and development of journalists.
• The impact of the digital revolution on the print media. This would include both the upsides and downsides.
On Lowering the Fence
I have not said enough about Nat Nakasa and his relevance to current times. There are others far more capable of this anyway. In a cursory consideration of him in the limited time I had to prepare this speech, I was interested to see these words of his:
‘My people are South Africans …
Mine is the history of the Great Trek…
Gandhi’s passive resistance in Johannesburg, the wars of Cetshwayo …
and the dawn raids which gave us the treason trials of 1956…
All these are South African things. They are part of me.’
If Nat Nakasa was a journalist, he was also a bridge-builder. Of course, these are different times from Nakasa’s, but why can’t we have a vigorous, independent media that also serves broad nation-building and developmental goals, not in the interests of government or the majority party, but in the country’s interests, in all our interests?
In a different context Nakasa said:
‘There must be humans on the other side of the fence; it’s only we haven’t learned how to talk.’
A fence between government and the media is necessary, given our important respective roles, but shouldn’t it be lowered and shouldn’t we learn how to talk more?
That’s a challenge for both sides. And if our Ministry can contribute in any way to do this, of course, we would be prepared to do so.