Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has thrown a spanner in the works over the appointment of six new councillors to Icasa at a critical juncture for the regulator as gears up to license new broadband spectrum.
The minister was meant to select six names from a short-list sent to her by parliament so that the positions at the communications regulator could be filled urgently. She has now asked parliament for permission to fill only four — for now.
Icasa’s powerful decision-making council is at risk of becoming inquorate if just one of the three remaining councillors becomes indisposed (through illness, for example).
This would mean it being unable to function properly at a time when the telecommunications industry is awaiting an invitation to apply (ITA) for spectrum suitable for rolling out 4G and next-generation 5G networks. The ITA, which had been expected at the end of June, has already been delayed.
The minister has written to parliament to raise her concerns over the short-listed candidates. Her letter to national assembly speaker Thandi Modise, which TechCentral has in its possession, raises questions about the suitability of the candidates drawn up by parliament’s portfolio committee on communications & digital technologies.
Standoff with MPs
Her letter, which is dated 30 June, comes after it emerged that a standoff was brewing between the minister and MPs over the appointment of the new councillors. This is after members of the portfolio committee took the unusual decision to rank the short-listed candidates based on MPs’ preferred names. Ndabeni-Abrahams, who recently returned from suspension for violating lockdown regulations, must appoint six names from 10 provided by the committee, including a new chair.
According to a report in City Press on 17 June, which cited people close to the process, the decision to rank candidates suggested that MPs wanted to “confine the minister to their top candidates and direct the choice of the new Icasa chair”.
Democratic Alliance MP and the party’s shadow communications minister, Phumzile Van Damme, said that although the committee created an order of preference of candidates, which is “not something we ordinarily do”, it is “neither here nor there because the minister can choose whoever she deems suitable”.
Instead of selecting six names, Ndabeni-Abrahams has asked parliament to appoint four councillors in the interim and to recruit the remaining two candidates later.
“This I request because the term is a four-year term and if we fail to assist the authority with the basic requisite skills, we may have failed the entire country that relies on a capable and responsive regulator that must regulate the new technological environment we are in,” the minister wrote in her letter to Modise.
She said the short-listed candidates “do not possess the skill-sets that would position the regulator to repurpose or position Icasa to execute effectively on its mandate”.
She identified these skills as “digital economy and economics, cybersecurity, and trends of emerging technologies”.
“The current skills at Icasa, including those that parliament is proposing, can be summarised as finance, legal, engineering and public relations,” she wrote in the letter.
Reached for comment on Thursday, the DA’s Van Damme said the minister’s response to parliament is “quite alarming” and she questioned whether her proposal is permissible under law. “The committee will probably now have to get a legal opinion,” she said.
She said the candidates sent to the minister were not necessarily from the top drawer but nevertheless held the necessary skills.
‘Looking for the best’
In a speech to parliament last month, delivered virtually because of the Covid-19 lockdown, Van Damme said: “The problem of a lack of talent was clearly visible when we interviewed candidates to serve on the Icasa council… It is not to say that the candidates … are not apt, some were. But ‘apt’ is not what we are looking for. We are looking for the best.”
What happens next is, however, up to the portfolio committee, which must either accede to the minister’s request, in which case four new councillors could be appointed in relatively short order, or it must reject it, in which case the minister may be required to appoint six candidates from the short-list (or challenge the process legally).
The risk is that the process becomes dragged out and no resolution is found before parliament goes into recess next month.
Boyce Maneli, the chairman of the portfolio committee, could not be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon as his mobile phone was switched off.
Ndabeni-Abrahams’ spokesman, Mish Molakeng, was not immediately able to comment on the letter as he was travelling. — © 2020 NewsCentral Media