Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri: Minister with talents of backbencher

Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 71, was in charge of one of the most critically important portfolios in government for the past decade — which, for most of that time, was an unmitigated disaster.

As minister of communications, she ensured that the local industry remained light years behind its international counterparts, with devastating consequences for South Africa’s global competitiveness.

She ignored pleas from analysts, industry players, the industry regulator and even her own predecessor, Jay Naidoo, to liberalise the telecommunications environment in the face of abundant evidence that her stance was crippling the country.

Thanks to her, the Internet, which could have done so much to make South Africa more competitive and attract massive overseas investment — with all that this would have meant in terms of jobs and skills — remained a no-go area to most of the population.

While the country’s global competitors enjoyed almost free broadband access, small businesses and individuals in South Africa remained hamstrung by prohibitively high costs.

The majority of South Africans spend an average of 20% of their income on communications, while their counterparts in peer economies pay an average of less than 5%.

The deadening impact of her leadership of the industry was summed up in the name it gave her, “Poison Ivy”.

Matsepe-Casaburri bent over backwards to protect Telkom’s monopoly at the expense of everyone else and gave every appearance of doing her best to ensure that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa was in no position to curtail its excesses and regulate the industry properly.

She starved Icasa of resources and paid lip service to the statutory provision that it be independent.

When Icasa told former president Thabo Mbeki to his face, and in front of Matsepe-Casaburri, that the biggest problem it faced was the minister, she grinned.

Mbeki did nothing.

It is no exaggeration to say that she became a figure of scorn and derision second only to former minister of health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

Her obstructive behaviour suffered a significant and embarrassing setback last year when Altech won a high court action forcing her to allow value-added network service providers to provide their own networks.

She attempted to appeal but her bid was swiftly quashed by the court.

Under her leadership, national broadcaster, the SABC, which she chaired in the mid 1990s, went from bad to worse — to chaotic.

The chairman of the broadcaster said that when they met to brief her on the deteriorating situation, Matsepe-Casaburri frequently nodded off.

Industry players got the impression that she didn’t understand the industry at all and was hopelessly out of her depth.

This was probably not surprising given that her field of expertise was sociology.

Why Mbeki gave her such a technically demanding portfolio, and then kept her there in spite of evidence that she was not coping, is something that nobody has been able to explain.

Matsepe-Casaburri was born in Kroonstad in the Free State on September 18 1937. She studied at the University of Fort Hare and taught for two years in KwaZulu-Natal before going into exile for 25 years.

During this time, she obtained a PhD in sociology at Rutgers University in the US.

She worked for the United Nations and for the ANC.

In 1997, she was chosen by then deputy president Mbeki to replace Mosiuoa Lekota as premier of the Free State, in an effort to resolve serious infighting in the provincial structures of the ANC.

It was not a popular appointment and she lost the subsequent contest for provincial leadership of the party.

In 1998, she was voted out of the ANC’s provincial executive.

While many thought her talents qualified her to be an ANC backbencher at best, she became a member of Mbeki’s so-called dream team when he became president in 1999.

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Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri: Minister with talents of backbencher