Stephen Mncube ICASA

Hans van de Groenendaal in conversation with Dr. Stephen Mncube, chairperson of ICASA

Accepting the position as chairperson of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) takes a brave person, given the Authority’s history of the past few years.

To get an hour with Dr. Mncube was difficult, as, unlike some of his predecessors, he is very hands-on and had little time to spare. However, we persevered and eventually found that hour in his office in Sandton.

What initially worried me, but later impressed me, were his words: “I am not a young man and have little time in the job and I have a lot to achieve.” At first I was taken aback, as he and I are of similar age and I believe I have a long time ahead of me, hopefully interviewing and talking to interesting people. As our conversation proceeded I realised what he meant. He was not referring to his age but to the big job ahead and his eagerness to make a difference. To turn the negative publicity around and be a regulator that means business and whose focus is on excellence.

My first question was that given the historical problems at the Department of Communications and ICASA, can we as a country support world-class telecommunications? Dr. Mncube was quite outspoken about the subject “Well, we are already at the cutting edge of being a world- class telecommunications provider. Given the time frame of just 15 years during which many aspects had to be re-engineered such as our broadcasting, our whole life and our outlook, we cannot expect big miracles, but small miracles, yes! We can and have already achieved them.

“South Africa is a tale of two cities – before and after apartheid. There was one area that enjoyed the benefits of telecommunication and there was another area that was deprived. During the past 15 years we had to bridge that divide.”

The question in my mind was how could one do that? Dr. Mncube was straightforward: “By setting sound policies and laws, setting ICASA on the right footing and creating an enabling environment where telecommunications and IT companies can operate and at the same make sure that they are also somewhat answerable to the people who were deprived.

“The social imperative of information is not just plying people with information but supplying information that is useable and relevant to society.

“Considering that in a country where other social needs are screaming for attention, the telecommunication and IT – or let’s rather call it the ICT – space, have done reasonably well.”

On the question of the role of the regulator, 
Dr. Mncube said it is an easy question to answer but a difficult question to fulfil. “The easy part is that you have to level the playing field and be a good referee but the more difficult part is to make sure that one can attract more industry to function in this space and above all to ensure that poor people can also embrace the ICT world.”

Dr. Mncube said that we are not an island. “We have to play with the rest of the world and take note of where they are going. The USA’s Federal Communications Commission is the oldest regulator, experienced in formulating policy and can be of great guidance. On the other hand we also have to look at our own continent. We cannot accept that everyone in the Southern African Development Community will follow what we do, it is however important that we cooperate and where necessary negotiate for others to follow our position where it is most appropriate. On the other hand we also have to take note of their ideas which may be better than ours. We need to lead by consensus. On the other side of the coin we also have to learn from industry.”

Looking at the future he said that the ICASA Act cannot remain static. It has to keep up with the times. “We need to come up with a business plan on how we shape the future of ICASA as an independent regulator with its own revenue model. Right now our funding is limited and we operate under austerity measures. For instance we have no room in our budgets for business-class flights and I believe I am setting an example by travelling economy.

“Telecommunications is an enabler and we must guard against misuse. People often generalise about corruption. It happens in all walks of life and unfortunately it is everywhere. In the USA, Barak Obama came in as a messiah. I often wonder what his thoughts were about the former presidents when he looked at the US economy.”

On a more practical level I asked Dr. Mncube about the frequency allocation process. Why was the process stopped? “We realised we were going about it the wrong way. The 2,5 and 3,5 GHz spectrum is in much demand. We want to ensure this valuable asset is managed in the best possible way. The same applies to the allocation process ‘auction vs beauty contest’ or a combination of the two.

“I am not a regulator that has dropped from the moon. I have lived amongst our people and understand that the levelling of the playing field is important. The biggest challenge is that we have to follow an ethical approach so that the outcome does not punish the rich or make the poor poorer.

“At my age of 70 I want to do the very best for my country. I love South Africa and as a regulator I am in a position to bring about changes in a more excellent way. ICT is a means and not an end itself. We need to deploy our means to achieve the best for our people and country. In terms of ICT we have already done well. The World Cup proved to the world that we have the technology, the expertise and the will to compete with the best in the world.”