The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been blamed on many things, including, most incredulously, on the rollout of 5G radio technology across the globe. While all scientific evidence debunks myths that symptoms of coronavirus are caused by electromagnetic radiation, the conspiracy theory about 5G and the virus continues to do the rounds in South Africa and the rest of the world.


Earlier this month, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize warned that fake news was causing way more damage than the actual virus.

“The issue about 5G technology and the virus is that coronavirus is an organic infection. It’s not something you can link to 5G,” he said.

Before the pandemic, cellular operators were focused on adopting 5G, the latest standard in radio frequency communications technology, in South Africa. But for now, their attention has turned to helping the country navigate a complex health and socio-economic crisis.

One of the main players is Telkom, a founding partner of 4IRSA. The telecommunications giant developed the system being used by the government to track those infected by COVID-19 in the country, and trace those who may have come into contact with them. The solution was developed by the company’s tech developers working in conjunction with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Based on the data collected, the NICD can contact potential exposed patients efficiently, and ensure medical consumables are delivered where they are most needed at the appropriate time. “It is inspiring that we, as a business, have been able to play a part in helping South Africa flatten the curve and fight this outbreak,” Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko said in an email to staff, announcing the breakthrough.

“I am really proud of the highly skilled and energetic team that, through a spirit of selflessness and collaboration, delivered this remarkable system in a short space of time.
This spirit is one that I have come to associate with Telkom.”

The system was given a soft-launch by Mkhize and Telkom in the second week of April, before an anticipated rollout with all nine provincial departments of health. Telkom has also pledged R15-million to bolster the battle against COVID-19. The money is to support primary healthcare workers who are at the forefront of keeping South Africans safe throughout the duration of the pandemic. Telkom is also equipping and maintaining
provincial health call centres to enable regional and local governments to respond to South African citizens’ calls.

The country’s other two major telecoms operators – Vodacom and MTN – have also come to the party. Vodacom has donated 20,000 cellphones to be used by healthcare workers in the track and trace system to feed information to the NICD. The company’s Group CEO, Shameel Joosub, is also donating a third of his salary for the next three months to the country’s Solidarity Fund to help fight the pandemic, following the lead taken by the government.

“South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, set an incredible example by announcing that he would be taking a one-third pay cut for the next three months and that his entire cabinet will do the same,” Joosub said in announcing the move.

“I, too, will heed the President’s call by donating a third of my salary for the next three months to the Solidarity Fund and call on other CEOs to follow suit. Not only is it the right thing to do but it will, in a small way, help towards South Africa’s recovery from the pandemic.”

MTN also announced a R250 million relief package to tackle the coronavirus outbreak across its 21 markets in Africa and abroad.
Part of this will be in the form of the company’s chairman, chief executive, chief financial officer and directors pledging 30% of their board fees and salaries for the next three months towards a R40 million emergency fund for its staff.

The mobile network operator will also contribute R10 million to a support fund set up by government and R150 million will be invested in the Y’ello Hope Package for its customers, which includes free SMS services and discounted calling during off-peak periods. Huawei, which is making inroads in the country, has also contributed to fighting the pandemic. The Chinese multinational technology company donated R1-million to the Health Department.


It is not only telecom companies that have come on board.
The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has published regulations to ease the burden of regulatory compliance for the sector during the national state of disaster. The changes also enable the sector to meet the increased demand of ICT services by temporarily releasing high demand spectrum. This measure, says the regulator, will not interfere with the current process of auctioning spectrum by the end of the year.

“It is of critical importance to note that the emergency release of this spectrum does not, in anyway whatsoever, negate the processes that are currently underway for the permanent assignment of spectrum through an auction… as well as the assignment of the spectrum set aside for the Wireless Open Access Network due for completion next year,” said Icasa acting chairperson Keabetswe Modimoeng.

On concerns around 5G, he said Icasa was contributing to discussions being held by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and South Africa is adhering to the standards set by the ITU and World Health Organisation.

Cellular privacy regulations have also been amended. The director-general of health is now allowed to direct mobile operators to provide information such as location and movements of any person who has tested positive for Covid-19. This will allow the Telkom/NICD track and trace system to work optimally to monitor and manage positive cases, test those exposed, and flatten the curve of the pandemic’s trajectory through the South African population.

There were concerns across the board that the state would abuse these new and wide-ranging surveillance capabilities. But the government quickly moved to allay these fears by appointing former Constitutional Court judge Kate O’Regan to ensure that people’s personal information and privacy is not comprised in the fight against the pandemic. The NICD, the national Department of Health and Telkom report to O’Regan weekly on their possession and use of citizen’s personal data, to ensure no overreach or abuse occurs.


While the telecoms sector has been praised for stepping up, stakeholders in education believe operators need to do more. On Monday (20 April 2020) universities started online teaching to help students salvage the 2020 academic year.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, the CEO of tertiary education body Universities South Africa, says that while “there’s a huge amount going on”, the organisation is currently in negotiations with mobile network operators to provide data for universities. In the meantime, some institutions have gone ahead with providing data, including the University of Johannesburg and the University of the Witwatersrand, which are giving students 30GB of data every month.

The initiative was negotiated and made possible through a partnership with the country’s four main mobile networks, Telkom, Vodacom, MTN, and
Cell C.

By: Amy Musgrave