Communications technology is not a luxury – it’s a utility
Sejamothopo Motau, Shadow Minister of Labour
8 May 2012
75,000 South Africans have lost their jobs in the last quarter. Our economy is simply not performing optimally.
South Africa’s unemployment rate is now at 25.2%, up from 23.9% in the last quarter of 2011. Figures released this morning show that there are now 4.5 million South Africans who are unemployed, notwithstanding those who have given up looking for work.
At a structural level, many of the jobs created in the last year are in non-productive capacities such as the public service. Government employment is not the kind of work that creates sustainable momentum in an economy.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has a clear plan to address unemployment: Implement the youth wage subsidy, cut red tape, reform the labour market to be more labour-absorptive, hold teachers accountable to non-performance and incentivise increased investment in our economy.
But the Department of Labour has essentially ignored these constructive proposals. Instead, it has chosen to propose a set of labour amendment bills that will likely do even more damage to employment opportunity. These new bills will further restrict our labour market by placing additional regulations on temporary work – making it even more expensive to hire new workers.
Government must decide between appeasing COSATU and actually serving South Africans. The DA will continue to apply all the pressure we can to ensure the latter.
Note to editors: This is an extract based on a speech delivered by DA Shadow Minister of Communications Marian Shinn MP during today’s debate on the Communications budget vote.
I would like to begin with a tribute to the late, former Minister of Communications Roy Padayachie, who died this past weekend. While I did not know him, my colleagues who previously served on the communications portfolio committee, remember him with affection and respect.
Our sympathies go to his family and colleagues who have lost a man of warmth, vision and dedication.
South Africa’s information and communications sector invested much hope in him as a person who understood the untapped potential of communications technology.
But he worked for a government that has no clue about the critical role communications plays in economic growth, resultant job creation and the delivery of services in South Africa.
If it did the President would have given it weight in his State of the Nation address and ensured it was a key player in the infrastructure development plan. It was barely mentioned.
In the budget, the Department of Communications has been given R290-million less than last year – this at a time when we need to pour at least R90 billion into installing a broadband communications backbone that reaches, at the very least, into every region and urban hub and village in the country.
We have to understand that without high-speed, ubiquitous, accessible communications infrastructure we cannot educate; we cannot produce; we cannot trade: we cannot govern: we cannot deliver services.
Communications technology is not a luxury or an afterthought. It is a utility, like water, electricity and roads.
South Africa’s communication industry is in desperate need of transformation – but no one has the guts to do it. It needs to break loose from the stranglehold of a fixed-line monopoly and mobile network duopoly and the lethargic regulatory process.
These forces have warped the communications landscape to their advantage and excessive profit. Bold, swift action is taken to make the sector more accessible and affordable to new and nimble entrepreneurs.
They are keen to build on the opportunities technology offers them. Without their fresh energy South Africa will fail to fully exploit its economic and developmental potential.
Communication and information technologies should be a liberating force but this government is too inward looking to allow that. It has harnessed taxpayer funds to serve the electoral needs of the governing party, rather than the nation. The business sector - the critical wealth generating engine of our nation – is secondary to government’s social re-engineering agenda.
Government controls too much of the ICT sector. It is legislator, regulator, wholesaler, retailer and nursemaid to start-up businesses.
The idea of liberating the sector from excessive regulation so business can prosper and create non-government jobs is too abstract a concept.
Government wants to be seen to be handing over the pay cheque.
This is in stark contrast to the DA-run Western Cape Government which recognises that, to be an internationally competitive ecosystem, it must have a leading-edge communications technology infrastructure.
It plans, within the next two years, to implement the largest wireless mesh network in the world, connecting the homes and businesses in the Industrial Development Zone on the West Coast, Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain. This will drive economic growth and jobs for all.
The Western Cape plans, by 2014 to have all the schools in the province connected to broadband infrastructure. By 2016 every municipality in the province will be connected to a fibre optic broadband communications backbone.
By working better together, with vision, purpose and energy, the Western Cape government and business sectors will make this province a destination for internationally competitive enterprises to grow and prosper in a connected world.
It will be a destination of opportunity.
The Western Cape’s target for widely accessible broadband pips to the post - by four years - that of the national government. If we’re lucky, the nation might have 100% broadband infrastructure coverage in place by 2020.
But no one’s holding their breath. This issue has been tossed back and forth for years. Cabinet approved its Broadband Policy in 2010.
It took another year before a compact on this issue was signed with 30 major players in the ICT industry last August. Now the department is exploring what broadband infrastructure exists in South Africa and will spend some time finalising the broadband strategy before it is released for further public comment.
And so the cycle of endless consultation and consensus seeking goes on and on, with little tangible happening on the ground.
Meanwhile, economic opportunities pass this country by, and South Africa slips further and further down the global rankings of ICT-empowered nations.
In 2009 the South African National Broadband Forum called on this government to make the development of a comprehensive National Broadband Strategy a high priority.
If government had acted on this comprehensive plan – every town and village in South Africa would have broadband access by 2014. We would have the cheapest broadband access in Africa and lead the continent in terms of broadband penetration.
But we’re eating the dust of other African nations.
The reasons for our communications department’s inertia are many:
• Successive disinterested and incapable leadership in both Cabinet and in the department.
• The relevant skills and experience to grapple with complex, technical issues are not there, so they clutter their desks with the soft options: ICT skills development, nurturing SMME development, expanding infrastructure to rural government facilities, regional co-operation, digitising cultural heritage, and running emergency call lines.
All these may be worthwhile endeavours, but they are not the critical core that the department should focus on.
It must urgently drive the vision that this nation needs fast, accessible, affordable communications infrastructure to redress the economic and social exclusion that deeply wounded most of our people in the past.
Another headache the department has to manage is the perpetual problem of the SABC. This is a high-profile distraction because of the endemic corruption that festered for years through the ranks of the corporation and the board.
That the new management is determined to turn this behemoth around, I am in no doubt. But its radical surgery and disruption of comfort zones means this will be a bumpy ride. I wish them well.
Another drain on the government’s resources – and the department’s ability to rapidly liberate the communications infrastructure – is Telkom.
Government is the major shareholder of this entity that has a hefty R3, 5 billion fine hanging over its head because of its anti-competitive behaviour that so crippled our communications landscape.
Whatever the details of Telkom’s negotiations with KT Corporation, the net result should be that government relinquishes its shareholding and that the deal be structured in such a way that South African investors and ICT industry players have a greater stake in what should become a communication infrastructure wholesaler.
South African ICT entrepreneurs are desperate for the opportunity to exploit the potential of communications technology. They envy the light regulatory hand operating elsewhere in Africa. They want to be part of the action. Minister, be bold, and let them loose on the world.