Communications minister Yunus Carrim is a very busy man. Talking to him is like chasing a moving train. He is determined to get so much done in such a short space of time that he hardly has time to stop to answer questions.
It’s no wonder he was chosen to take control of the communications ministry, which has lagged so badly behind schedule in many areas after the previous minister, Dina Pule, spent more time dealing with personal scandals than the demands of the communications portfolio. And his time is so limited because he needs to catch up on information and communications technology (ICT) issues because come elections on 7 May, his tenure is up. Before then, he intends to tackle the main issues relating to the rollout and costs of broadband, digital terrestrial television (DTT), cyber-security, the reduction of communication costs, revitalising a damaged SABC and other vital tasks.
So, he cuts through all the proverbial crap and gets to the point.
“I’m not into personal legacies, and I certainly have no illusions about what can be done in the nine months or so of the term I serve,” says Carrim. “I work closely with deputy minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, director-general Rosey Sekese and others in the department, and it’s our collective effort that has to be judged, even though as the political head I am ultimately accountable.”
On 4 December last year, he went to cabinet to get answers about his broadband policy and strategy, issues around DTT and his ICT green paper to revamp the policies of this fast changing sector. He is single-minded about these main points of his tenure.
In terms of DTT, he proposed a solution to resolve the ongoing battle among broadcasters over set-top boxes (STB) (see story on page 10) but it hasn’t worked so far.
He says there is an urgent need to “roll out digital migration as quickly as possible, given that we are over five years behind schedule and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) June 2015 deadline looms”. In making the decision on the best way forward, he explains, cabinet had to consider: “What would best protect the local electronics industry and create jobs? What would advance the needs of emerging entrepreneurs? How do we advance the needs and interests of the SABC? What best suits the needs of the viewers? How can we deal with the high levels of monopoly in the broadcasting sector by creating space for other pay-TV players, but not at the expense of the state subsidy for indigent households?”
Carrim explains the state will subsidise up to five million households to the tune of 70% of the cost of the STB. “Now we can’t have pay-TV producers using that as the basis to launch pay-TV channels. So while we encourage competition and the reduction of monopolisation, we can’t do it at the expense of the state.”
Carrim is set on ensuring South Africans have better broadband access. “We have to ensure that broadband is affordable, available and people have the skills to use it. You have to have an overall strategy to ensure the rollout of the infrastructure realises dividends.”
His draft broadband policy, taken to cabinet and gazetted in December, revealed a four-pronged strategy including skills development, digital readiness, opportunities and the future.
Cabinet gave him the go-ahead to work towards achieving a universal average download speed of 100 megabits per second (mbps) by 2030. “It won’t happen overnight and depends on budgets and other constraints but we are working on it,” Carrim says.
This policy, called ‘South Africa Connect’, will contribute significantly to economic growth, development and job creation, he says. “This will be pursued in a progressive manner, with reviewable targets starting with an average user experience speed of five mbps to be reached by 2016 for 50% of the population and 90% by 2020 (with 50% having 100 mbps access).”
Carrim has also set up public hearings in March in all nine provinces to allow interested stakeholders the chance to thrash out the ICT green paper that was gazetted in January. The policy deals with the need to amend regulations to accommodate the rapid changes in ICT. It will focus on telecommunications, broadcasting, postal services and e-commerce.
Carrim is very supportive of the recent Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) decision to halve the fees mobile phone companies can charge rivals to use their networks. This all fits in with his plan to lower costs for broadband and communications.
“In the longer term, if we ensure the digital migration roll-out occurs fast, we will be in a better position to get the digital dividend of much-needed spectrum released for mobile and other broadband purposes,” he says. “The relationship between digital migration spectrum and broadband has to be taken into account. As we begin to roll out broadband and as the digital migration process gets consolidated, there will be more prospects to release spectrum.”
When asked what he plans to do about the problems facing SABC, he says, “The SABC has been challenged for some time now and there are no easy answers or quick turnarounds. It has got to be incremental.
“There is a new board and we have to give it time to settle and find its feet, as it were, and its collective identity.” He said that there is still a need to fill the key positions and, having done a skills audit, “they have established for themselves that there are several positions there for which the skills are not available”. He says he presumes the board will deal with that. “As the shareholder, obviously we have oversight responsibility but we have to be careful that we don’t unduly interfere in the operational autonomy of the SABC.”
The skills audit by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found 60% of the SABC’s executive and senior managers do not meet the minimum strategic thinking skills for executives; 56% were unable to demonstrate adequate levels in solving problems and making decisions; 15% demonstrated only marginal competence in strategic thinking; and 35% of the group did not consider the financial information provided to them as a skills test during the audit.
As government, Carrim has insisted that all the recommendations of the 2013 auditor general’s report must be set as goals to achieve. “We are going to have much more active oversight of the SABC and we hope the board will have much more active oversight of the management.”
He says that no matter what people say about the SABC, the country needs an effective public broadcaster. “Active constructive engagement of civil society with the SABC is most welcome. It should be welcome by the board as well and the SABC as a whole.”
As for the new board, his sense is that the members’ individual skills are not as important as the board being united and having a collective identity.
On government’s relationship with the media, he says, “Invariably in a democracy there is a tussle between government and the media. The issue is the extent and nature of this tussle. Media freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution and it is certainly not going to be eroded in any way. The press has a right to criticise government and we must accept that as an important feature of a democracy. But the press has a responsibility to report accurately. While we welcome criticism, there is far too negative a picture painted of what is happening in this country and of government’s performance.
“We are certainly doing better than what is being made out in the media, even if not as well as we should be doing.”
As for the Protection of State Information Bill, he says, “the Constitutional Court will decide whether it is constitutional or not”.
Clearly, Carrim is passionate about community media. He admits to being concerned that the commercial media often absorbs the most successful community media, yet it is government that helped to give it a leg up. “They get absorbed because they are competing with the establishment media,” he says. “We are looking at how we can more actively prevent that from happening.”
But just how much will be achieved by the elections, time will tell. But one thing is for sure: this man is trying to change the face of his government department.
This story was first published in the March 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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