Dear Mr President, here are five ways you can ensure SA’s digital success

First appeared in Daily Maverick here 

This open letter to Cyril Ramaphosa is a plea for a better media and communications strategy – and no more useless office bearers. By WILLIAM BIRD.

Dear President Ramaphosa,

I know your plate is already full and there will be more requests placed on you than Google’s search engine, but I wanted to put forward five things within your power as president you could do to make some serious inroads in our media and communications sector – inroads that would have an almost immediate positive impact. There are many more, but hopefully if you can get these done we can all get stuck in and work through the list on the others.

  1. We need one Department of Communications please. I believe this is a resolution of the ANC already, but it needs to be a top priority. Splitting the ministry was one of the worst ideas our former president had. It caused huge confusion, instability and infighting. Linked to this, please, please, please, please can we have a communications minister who is intelligent, a person of integrity, passionate and knowledgeable about information and communications technology (ICT), media, media freedom and sees the media sector as a driver of economic growth and development and not an add-on or propaganda tool. Please can you also ensure that the person engages with all stakeholders – not just the powerful. We have seen what happens when they listen to only a select few. Can this person also be appointed for a longer period – changing communications ministers nearly every quarter is an absolute disaster, for everyone. We really need clarity, commitment, stability and a plan.Please can you ensure a multi-stakeholder forum is set up as soon as possible, a little like the National Development Plan (maybe in your office) that seeks to work on and develop an inclusive, progressive and public interest-oriented strategy for South Africa’s digital future. Our recent past has been beset by a litany of new policies, draft laws and ideas, with few speaking to each other, many overlapping, no coherent strategy and in many cases linked only by a one-sided approach, out of touch with reality and emerging digital trends, impractical, unconstitutional and illogical. (Just have a look at the first version of the Draft Cyber Crimes and Cyber Security Bill, the Film & Publications Amendment Bill, the ICT policy that split broadcasting, the Draft Broadcasting Bill, the revised Electronic Communications Amendment Bill, the list goes on). Many of the ideas come from different clusters and there is no coherent plan.Convergence isn’t just a buzzword; it is a lived reality. Anyone who has a smartphone has internalised convergence – the merging of a variety of technologies into one device: you can message, watch videos, write, do your diary, keep up with the news, play games, be legal, be illegal, bully, be bullied, be inspired – and, oh yes, you can still do something called “make telephone calls”. Convergence isn’t just on our phones, it exists within them, within entities and programmers. Facebook doesn’t just know who our friends are and recommend more, or show us cool stuff; they are just about to launch a classified function so you can buy and sell. Google doesn’t just know what you have searched; it can tell you when to leave for a meeting and help you choose what car to buy. Convergence has spread even further – our digital reality has now brought just about everything and everyone together. We have the racists and rights activists, paedophiles and politicians, poets and pornographers, the serious and the silly, fascists and feminists, the fruitcakes and the finest minds, the awful and the amazing, the insipid and the inspiring, the corrupt and the champions of justice. The full spectrum from scum to mum. And we have all these increasing at a rate faster than we can begin to grasp. About 400 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded every minute and 1-billion Facebook posts every day. The implication of this, Mr President, is that we need a multi-stakeholder forum to help devise a strategy to address critical issues of identity, local content, how we act against those who bully and those who propagate hate speech, how we ensure we have a sustainable business environment where local businesses can compete and work with global giants, how we can draw on the expertise of global players to help combat cyber crime, how we can meet scarce human resource needs and give our young people the skills they need to operate in an emerging digital reality. Achieving these things cannot be done by one department or, indeed, many. It needs government, industry, regulators, global players and civil society to work together. If we don’t adress these issues, we will continue to fall behind not just the “developed” north, but those on our own continent as well. We have the skills and the brilliant people, we just need the government to bring them together, take the sector seriously and work on a real and comprehensive digital strategy for our nation.
  2. The SABC has been kept deliberately in crisis for more than a decade. Sorry for you, but the fault for this lies at the door of the ANC. From countless hopeless boards, useless portfolio committees stacked with lackeys and scaredy-cats, to undermined bodies such as the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), the crises worked to allow those with a limited agenda to interfere and just about get away with murder. This is no exaggeration, for as the crises deepened so too did the megalomaniac tendencies of the former leadership that saw them disrespect our Constitution and fundamental human rights. The so-called SABC8 journalists were victimised, harassed and threatened repeatedly – merely for voicing dissent – which it must be stressed was in a calm, ordered and legitimate manner. The impact of the threats saw the loss of excellent talent, a culture of fear and self -censorship and, ultimately, led to the death of a young woman who, by all accounts, was fantastically committed to public broadcasting and making South Africa a better place. Suna Venter died as a result of the political interference at the SABC and, as far as I am aware, nobody has yet been arrested for any of the threats against the SABC8. I would urge you to ensure you support Parliament, the SABC board and the South African Police Service to ensure those who carried out the actions and undermined the SABC and our democracy are held accountable. The good news, of course, is that the myopic, self-centred, greedy nature of those in charge meant that Parliament was finally forced to act. Those running the Eskom and other inquiries can thank the special inquiry into the board of the SABC for helping Parliament find its backbone. But, wait. There’s more. The processes and public backlash meant we had a more transparent and participative process for the appointment of the new SABC board. At the same time, the SOS Coalition, Media Monitoring Africa and FXI had a significant legal victory. The implications are many and you can read about them here, but the crux of it is that the SABC board is the most independent its has been and ministerial interference has been dramatically curtailed. We have also witnessed the appointment of a new CEO and head of news at the SABC. Both appear to be the best candidates for the position; both are small but important steps. Accordingly, Mr President, please, please, please ask your new minister to drop the appeal and let the SABC board get on with its job. If they fail, they can be held fully accountable and cannot blame the minister or you. If they succeed your government will take all the credit. Either way the public will win. It will mean a less pliable SABC, but will demonstrate a real commitment to media freedom and non-interference. Also, with bigger digital issues needing the attention of our communications minister, it makes sense for her/him to let the SABC get on with being a shining light for public broadcasting on our continent and for her/him to help make South Africa a shining light for an emerging digital democracy.
  3. Fix Icasa. Internationally, the role of regulators in a converged space is increasing and being recognised as vitally important. Tragically, under our former president we witnessed numerous efforts to undermine the regulator, rob it of its power, destabilise it and cut it off at the knees. Just have a look at the proposed amendment to the Electronic Communications Act, which would see key powers being taken away. Rather than a weak regulator, which allowed the SABC to spiral into a bloody mess and monopolies in the sector to do as they wished, we need a strong, independent regulator that acts in the public interest, works with industry and realises a more democratic diverse media sector. Start by ensuring the authorities act against convicted criminal Rubben Mohlaloga – the chair of Icasa – by firing him immediately and sending him to jail, and ensuring some of the brilliant people we have in the sector are appointed as councillors. An empowered, strong regulator can make crucial frequency available – and not leave it to the greedy, as effectively proposed in the Electronic Communications Act amendment bill. Icasa would be another key member of the multi-stakeholder forum suggested in 1. While you are at it, apply the same principles to the Media Development Diversity Agency – and watch them achieve great things.
  4. Broadband and access to the internet. The evidence is overwhelming: access to the internet for all isn’t just an essential facilitative right, it is a driver of economic growth and employment. This was sort-of recognised under our former president, but there doesn’t seem to be the urgency to ensure that everyone in South Africa has access to cheap, fast-quality broadband. In any event, even if we look at the successes, such as pilots in Gauteng with e-classrooms or public Wi-Fi, what is so clearly absent is a common digital strategy. The absence of such a strategy means we tend to look at just offering Wi-Fi.
  5. Rather, we need to look at how we create jobs, give people critical digital literacy skills, manage industry, bring down mobile data costs, work with global players and develop our own digital skills sector from software to hardware and everything in between. Plus:
  6. I know I said I would suggest five points, but this isn’t about the media, it’s about children (we have been working with children and media for the last 15 years, so this is an issue close to my heart). They make up about 35 percent of our population and despite education receiving a massive budget, children – their hopes, dreams, voices and views – have been fantastically undermined and marginalised. We went from an office of the Status of the Child in the Presidency to a Ministry of Everyone But Able-bodied Men (where children were an add-on) to shifting children to the Department of Social Development. It’s embarrassing and a grave disservice not only to our children but to our Constitution. We know that unlike many parts of the world, our continent is getting younger. We know the implications of the digital reality are profound. We also know children are not just our future but our here and now. We also know that far too many of our children are abused, that the leading cause of death for infants is easily curable (diarrhoea, according to this report). There have been some excellent moves to bring children into the mainstream, including through the National Development Plan process, but we need more. If we are to achieve equality and a bright future, it is essential that children are at the centre of our agenda, otherwise we are simply making all our social problems worse. We can no longer be outraged at the abuse of our children; we have to make violence prevention a key priority. Accordingly, please, please, please, please, please Mr President take all steps necessary to ensure children are back, not just on the agenda of a ministry, but of our entire government and political agenda. Reintroducing the Office of the Rights of the Child in your office would be a key first step. Our nation’s future depends on it.

Ultimately, these issues matter because not only will addressing them have a huge impact on the media and ICT sector, they will also lead to significant positive change and growth in education, poverty alleviation, public participation and a more just and equitable society. Not addressing these factors as a matter of extreme urgency will not only make your presidency that much harder, it is also likely to ensure that your power and legacy will be dramatically undermined, as South Africa will find itself unprepared for a converged digital reality that is already here. DM