When I first interviewed Dr. Stephen Mncube some two years ago he had just been appointed chairman of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and was settling in. When we talked about his vision for ICASA he said “I have only five years, and in that time I want to make a difference and turn ICASA into an efficient independent regulator.” Now after three years in the position; how has he fared? Did he achieve his objectives?
Working with a constant change of ministers, one more dysfunctional than the other and a Department of Communications (DoC) that was leaderless yet had a direct say in the funding of ICASA, could not have been easy for Dr. Mncube. It is a well-known fact that the agency has been underfunded for a long time; a situation that now seems to have been recognised by government. But for a long time is was very difficult to appoint the right level of staff to fill all the vacancies or even keep staff with experience.
How did ICASA fare under his leadership?
“For many years ICASA received qualified audits, in 2013 we received a clean audit from the auditor-general. No if’s and but’s, but a clean audit. This places us in a much better position to move to a self-funding model agency which means that we can truly say we are independent. With a clean audit, Treasury will be looking at us in a different light and may be more likely to consider the move to a self-funding model. I am also hoping that the ICT Review Committee will support this.
“Currently all fees and any other income are paid to Treasury. The DoC budgets for ICASA and funds it from their allocation. I have for many years asserted that ICASA can under those conditions not be truly independent – after all, he who pays the bills calls the tune!
“When I took up my appointment as chairman, industry used to call ICASA a toothless organisation. This situation has changed. Today industry complains that we over-regulate and that we are bullies. I regard this as a huge compliment.”
While the chairman believes that the organisation has made great strides ahead since it was thrown together form various other bodies, industry is still “pulling at the short end” with no adequate spectrum policy in place. South Africa will never have true broadband until more spectrum is released. Currently some of the mobile operators are using portions of their voice spectrum allocations to provide data services on long term evolution.
“Changes at the DoC have had a direct impact on spectrum allocation. We have no meaningful broadband policy in this country but I am confident that with the appointment of Yunus Carrim as the new minister of communication, we will see a major change. The minister has established an ICT Review Committee of which we are a part, thus affording us the opportunity to share our experiences and make input to achieve a policy which will set South Africa on a broadband path that is not just hi-tech and efficient but also affordable. We certainly make our voice heard. We expect the final policy to be released early in 2014 which I believe will expedite spectrum allocation.”
However, as the ICT policy will be generic, it will be be up to ICASA to formulate the regulations and the processes. Dr. Mncube says that he is painfully aware that it is long overdue and that ICASA will give it the priority it requires to resolve the long outstanding spectrum allocation issues.
I once wrote in an article that ICASA was hijacked by its legal department. While the chairman did not comment directly on this point he said “We have appointed a highly qualified person to head up our legal division to overcome the shortcomings of the past. We have also appointed a senior HR executive who has been briefed to fill the vacancies with the highly qualified people that the job requires. You may have seen the recent appointment of the CEO who comes with lots of experience in our industry. We will start 2014 with a skills audit and find the right people for the right jobs and fill the gaps.”
Dr. Mncube’s contract as chairman of ICASA has two more years to run. I asked him what he hopes to achieve in the remaining time in office. “By the time I leave ICASA there would have been a paradigm shift. What I mean by this is that all the things that are in the pipeline must reach fruition.”
But as chairman of ICASA how much influence does Dr. Mncube have on the councillors who are not directly appointed by him?
“I try to emulate Madiba. He was very resolute about things that had to be done yet he accommodated diversion. Anyone who manages an organisation like ICASA and does not accommodate divergent views is in the wrong place.”