Digital migration disaster shows how cadre deployment hurts South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced during his State of the Nation Address that the digital migration process will be completed by the end of March 2022.

Hidden behind this new deadline is the chilling message that incompetence will be tolerated, as long as it comes with political loyalty.

This may seem like a big leap in logic, but let me explain.

The digital migration process was supposed to have been completed by November 2011, but corruption and incompetence prevented progress.

One deadline after the next was missed, including the International Telecommunication Union’s June 2015 deadline to switch from analogue to digital TV.

Over a decade later, and South Africa is still trying to figure out how to get digital migration done.

This is hurting South Africa. The process is crucial to free up valuable spectrum and advance the broadcasting industry.

Ramaphosa knows this. He even said during his SONA “the completion of digital migration is vital to South Africa’s ability to effectively harness the enormous opportunities presented by technological change”.

So, if the President realizes the importance of digital migration, why is he tolerating such a poor performance in this area?

The answer lies in politics. The communications ministry has always been a place to reward political loyalty.

The foundation was laid by former President Thabo Mbeki when he appointed Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri as communications minister in June 1999.

During Matsepe-Casaburri’s time in office, South Africa’s telecommunications sector and the country as a whole suffered terribly.

Consumers and businesses paid sky-high prices for communications and the industry is still trying to recover from her obsession to protect Telkom’s monopoly.

Despite these failures, she was a protected political ally and remained in office until her death in 2009.

Over the next decade, the communications department had some of South Africa’s most controversial ministers. They include Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Dina Pule, Faith Muthambi, and Nomvula Mokonyane.

Scandal after scandal rocked the department and the ministry became synonymous with corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

The only truly productive minister was Yunus Carrim. Under his leadership, the wheels started to turn and rapid progress was made with digital migration.

He was, however, unceremoniously booted from his position because he would allegedly not play ball when it came to shady dealings related to South Africa’s digital TV specification.

A look at the communications ministry over the last fifteen years clearly shows that political loyalty, instead of excellence, is rewarded.

There is no punishment for incompetence. Missed deadlines are overlooked. Even corruption is no big deal.

Going against the wishes of the President or the party, however, will see you fired in a flash.

President Ramaphosa’s acceptance of the missed digital migration deadlines without any punitive action is a clear sign that this status quo remains.

Political loyalty guarantees protection. Competence is optional.

  • This is an opinion piece.

Now read: Lies, incompetence, and corruption

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Digital migration disaster shows how cadre deployment hurts South Africa