National Assembly Debate, Tuesday May 22, 2001


DEBATE ON BUDGET VOTE NO 25: COMMUNICATIONS

REMARKS BY
Suzanne Vos Mp (IFP)

National Assembly 22nd May 2001

Madam speaker:

The Minister and her department, you have heard, manage a wide range of diverse, hugely complex and highly technical subject matters concerning telecommunications, broadcasting and postal services.

The rapidly expanding, globally competitive, multi-billion dollar telecommunications and broadcasting industries, in particular, demand the provision of efficient, high quality, consumer access and services as well as evolving and innovative public policy perspectives.

Together these issues, as well as the obvious requirement to educate and empower young persons in these multi-faceted fields of endeavour, consume much of the budget vote being debated -- which we support.

Huge amounts are being spent year after year on policy development and the director-general has heard that the IFP would like to see more of the fruits of this expensive labour as soon as possible.

We share with the minister and her department concern with regard to many of the problems and challenges they know they face and some which they silently wish they didn't! In all the areas of telecommunications, broadcasting and postal services, some warning flags simply have to be briefly raised in the limited time available.

Firstly, given the challenges and opportunities flowing from the rapid convergence of technologies, and the immediate imperatives telecommunications and broadcasting brought before this parliament in recent years, many members of the portfolio committee on communications admit that the SA post office has somehow never received the same kind of attention we have lavished on telecommunications and broadcasting.

Well, the Post Office certainly has our attention now that we have just learned that it made a huge loss last year; it is not meeting delivery targets; the board wants to fire its New Zealand management partners and skilled black managers are falling over each other to jump ship.

On top of all this, a forensic audit is underway, allegations of corruption continue to abound year after year, and one thing is for sure: this government will have to continue subsidising the post office when the big plan was that it would break even this year. And where is the money going to come from?

The Inkatha Freedom Party, for the most part, represents a constituency of the poorest of the poor in our land. Time and again in this house the IFP has made the point that for these people access to postal services is more often than not a financial lifeline and the only means of vital communication to their loved ones living elsewhere.

The Post Office is an economic and social survival hub and yet we all know that our constituents are being poorly served and, to make matters worse, many are also being swindled by criminal elements that continue to flourish within the organisation.

We have to admit that the minister and her department have a fiasco on their hands. We will need to know a lot more, very soon, about precisely how the department is planning to handle this crisis.

Secondly, as much as the IFP agrees in principle with government policy to usher in the managed liberalisation of the telecommunications sector, we are far from convinced that a duopoly is going to substantially benefit South African consumers.

Public and private telephone charges are far too high given the spending capacity of the majority of South Africans and the dangers of Telkom One and the future Telkom Two colluding with regard to their pricing structures are all too obvious.

We would like to see very real efforts being made by this government to insist that consumer protection in this sector is vigilantly pursued by the regulator.

Which brings the IFP to its next concern in this regard: when the second national operator, Telkom Two, is in the process of being licensed and the various empowerment contenders and domestic and foreign investors are being evaluated, can we please avoid any hint of another Cell C/Nextcom debacle? The matter is currently under judicial review, as we all know, so no more can be said - but enough said!

On the issue of genuine black empowerment the IFP notes that too many of the same faces wearing the same or only slightly different hats seem to be benefitting from the ongoing redistribution of government goodies and the opportunities being created by privatisation. We would like to see innovative ways and means developed to bring large numbers of rural men and women from throughout the country into this process of wealth creation and the skills transfer that will automatically follow.

The proposal regarding SMME's in under-serviced areas with a teledensity of less than 1 percent is a tiny start but this must not be used as a sop to marginalise rural people from being resourced and assisted in developing the capacity to compete for a share too in the major domestic bids.

The IFP has made it clear that it deplores what appears to be an overt lack of genuine empowerment of women in the actual decision-making and management of Cell C and calls on constituencies committed to the creation of gender equality throughout South Africa to insist that this is not repeated in the finalised licence framework for the second national operator.

A golden thread running through all discourse about telecommunications and broadcasting is the need for a well-resourced regulator. The independent communications authority of South Africa (ICASA) is cash-strapped and unable to meet its mandate.

The director-general has assured the committee this matter will shortly be resolved and we all await developments in this regard. Any further delays will seriously compromise the work and the perceived independence of this body, which this parliament should not tolerate.

Finally, our best wishes go to Mr. Peter Matlare who has taken over the helm as CEO of the SABC at probably the most difficult juncture in the corporation's history.

Transforming the organisation from a state to a public broadcaster clearly had its problems back in 1994 but today Mr. Matlare is having to split the SABC into commercial and public entities and cross-subsidise the so-called "public" channels with the profits of its commercial enterprises.

As time goes on I think we should all remember that Mr. Matlare is not the architect of this broadcasting act policy, merely the poor man who has to try to implement it.

The IFP believes the exercise is fraught with danger.

The IFP has long-warned that the public service demands on the "public" broadcaster, both TV and radio, including (quite correctly) increasing amounts of hugely expensive local content programming, will sap the resources of the SABC's commercial entity, which will, at the same time, be trying to provide its own high quality programming and compete with the likes of E-TV, successful commercial radio, DSTV and the revenues their audiences generate.

The minister and her department are having to grapple with difficult and financially volatile issues. We wish them well and remind them of the old saying: "you have to live with criticism. If you do nothing, then nobody will criticise you!"

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