Urgency to fix problems is not enough

Ivo Vegter, a former technology journalist and a columnist for the IRR, writes in defence of free markets and individual liberty. This article was commissioned by the Free Market Foundation. 

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This article was first published on Techcentral.co.za on
19 April 2022

Urgency to fix problems is not enough

From electricity to spectrum to water pipes, managers or ministers appointed to fix government services keep running into walls created by decades of neglect.
Turning a dysfunctional government around isn’t just a matter of appointing someone new to a position of leadership and telling them to fix things.
Eskom CEO André de Ruyter may be a very capable manager with the best of intentions, but – as he openly admits – Eskom is facing ‘two decades of unattended maintenance’.
Most of the utility’s capacity losses end up being unplanned maintenance, as long-neglected, overworked power stations give up the ghost.
During the peak of the most recent load-shedding period, for example, some 5 400MW was out due to planned maintenance, while almost 15 000MW was out due to unplanned maintenance. This resulted in a loss of 42% of Eskom’s total generation capacity.
Unplanned maintenance draws resources, including labour, money and emergency fuel reserves, away from normal operation and planned maintenance.
It limits the amount of planned maintenance that can be conducted at any given time. As planned maintenance is deferred, more power stations succumb to unplanned maintenance, and the vicious cycle continues.
De Ruyter’s challenge is not simply to fix ailing power stations, but also to stay ahead with all the unplanned maintenance.
In addition, he is forced to cope with, and improve, a bloated workforce that over the decades has lost skills and institutional memory, has become used to lax performance, and is heavily unionised.
In just over two years at the helm, De Ruyter has made progress on several fronts, but staying ahead of the breakdown curve to keep the lights on has proved just as challenging as it has been for the past 15 years.
In the eight months since Khumbudzo Ntshavheni was appointed as the new Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, she has shown more urgency and determination than any telecommunications minister before her.
This is admirable, and just what the sector needed after decades of broken promises, feet-dragging and getting lost in the weeds.
However, she too is running into obstacles created by her predecessors. Having pulled off a spectrum auction that was supposed to have happened ten years ago, she immediately ran into conflict with television broadcasters whose analogue spectrum was supposed to have been freed up for licensing to mobile operators.
The migration from analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasts was initially due for completion as long ago as 2011.
This would have involved creating, from scratch, a local industry to build millions of set-top boxes required to receive digital television signals, because the government was ideologically opposed to importing perfectly good, inexpensive equipment from abroad.
By 2011, nothing had happened. The government then agreed with the International Telecommunications Union that digital migration would be completed by 2015 – it wasn’t.
By that date, the required set-top boxes were only starting to roll off the production line, seven years after being commissioned.
Another seven years later and, according to the SABC, only 165 000 set-top boxes have been installed in the 2.9 million households that were supposed to receive government-subsidised equipment.
Although analogue television transmitters have been switched off in five provinces, the courts have delayed the switch-off in the four most populous provinces – Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Cape – which together account for two thirds of the country’s population.
The delay, until 30 June 2022, is intended to give the government time to install an additional 500 000 set-top boxes.
But half a million hardly makes much of a dent. By a decade ago, many millions of South Africans were supposed to have subsidised set-top boxes already.
The free-to-air television broadcasters are understandably up in arms. Switching off analogue transmitters will immediately slash their viewership numbers, which will decimate their advertising revenues.
They face massive losses now because of decades of government failure. Although the minister has silenced the state-owned SABC, private rival e.tv is taking the matter all the way to the Constitutional Court.
The failure to switch off analogue transmitters also means that some of the bandwidth recently auctioned off to mobile operators will not be available for them to use without interference.
So, despite Ntshaveni’s commendable drive to deliver on promises that went unmet for well over a decade, she has run headlong into the brick wall created by the failures of her predecessors.
This sort of scenario plays itself out throughout the public sector, at all levels of government.
Cities and towns desperately need to replace water infrastructure that, in some cases, has survived for more than double its typical 30-year lifespan. However, decades of neglect and corruption mean their budgets and manpower are largely spent on repairing burst pipes, instead of renewing the whole system.
The same happens with road infrastructure. Instead of being able to properly relay or resurface roads, or extend the tarred road network, municipalities spend all their time and budget on shoddy pothole patches.
After a long time of failing to meet deadlines, failing to maintain infrastructure, and failing to deliver services, the solution isn’t as simple as appointing competent people with a mandate, and a will, to deliver.
They have to overcome overwhelming obstacles created by past failures, just to re-establish a baseline from which they can resume normal service. Many of those obstacles will require extraordinary funding. Some will cause losses, both private and public. Others will require innovative solutions. All are challenging.
Before a nominally capable state can even resume operations, it first has to get back to a stable baseline, and that is much easier said than done.

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