President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his recent state of the nation address that “significant progress has been made in… crafting the path towards mobile spectrum allocation”.
To someone who is new to the telecommunications industry, this sounds promising. However, it is nothing new.
The digital migration and spectrum allocation processes started over a decade ago, with the Department of Communications setting a deadline of November 2011 for the migration to digital terrestrial TV.
Former president Thabo Mbeki also said in his February 2008 state of the nation address that they were aiming to provide digital broadcasting to 50% of the population by the end of that year.
This did not happen, but it did not stop multiple communications ministers singing their own praises and saying how well they were on track to meet the November 2011 deadline.
On 10 February 2011 former President Jacob Zuma reiterated that they “have committed to convert our television and radio signals from the analogue platform to the more advanced digital signal”.
The November 2011 deadline passed without any real progress, and so did the international digital migration deadline of 17 June 2015.
In 2015, South Africa became part of a small list of countries that failed to even get out of the starting blocks towards digital migration.
Since then it has been one missed deadline after another while the telecoms industry is begging for additional spectrum to serve the growing demand for mobile data.
Many useless ministers
To understand what is behind this tremendous failure, one must look no further than the communications ministers over the past decade.
The communications ministry has been dogged by incompetence, corruption, and instability.
These problems have prevented the department from making any meaningful progress with the digital TV migration process and getting spectrum in the hands of operators.
This poor performance is costing the country billions each year and is partly responsible for high mobile data prices.
Another year, another communications minister
In November 2018, Ramaphosa announced the merger of the Department of Communications and the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services.
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is now heading up the new merged department and serves as the Minister of Telecommunications.
Ndabeni-Abrahams is the 11th communications minister in as many years, which shows the instability at the department.
In fact, in recent years it has become rare for a communications minister to serve for more than a year before being replaced.
Communications Ministers – 2009 to 2019
An overview of the communications ministers of the past decade is shown below.