The government’s special unit, Operation Vulindlela, which was set up to help boost the country’s economic recovery believes that if its five priorities are implemented, at least 1% will be added to GDP every year over the next 10 years.

Special government unit focuses on priority structural reforms to kickstart growth

Members of the unit, who are situated in the Presidency and The Treasury, held their first media briefing this week to outline its priorities and highlight some wins since it was set up last October. But members of Operation Vulindlela have warned that without the support of all role players, including the private sector and civil society, their efforts to help government departments implement structural reforms will amount to naught.

“The economy has not been growing over the last 10 years… There are structural impediments on why the economy has not grown… If we can’t meet market demand… the economy won’t grow,” Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo, who leads the unit and reports directly to the Presidency on progress, told reporters.

The digital communications sector has been identified as one of the main priority areas that the unit believes will boost the economy and create jobs. The others are stabilising the country’s electricity supply, ensuring sustainable water supply, improving competitive pricing and service quality in the freight transport sector, and implementing a streamlined visa regime to attract scarce skills and boost tourism.

According to Rudi Dicks, who heads the Project Management Office in the Presidency, one of the key desired outcomes, is reducing the cost and increasing the quality of digital communications. Key structural reforms include increasing available spectrum, migrating from analogue to digital broadcasting, which is key to making additional
telecommunications spectrum available for 5G and other digital economy technologies, and finalising policy and policy direction on the rapid deployment of electronic communications networks and facilities.

Radio frequency spectrum is the telecommunications network facility that allows faster and more abundant data transmission, which will allow South Africa to compete in the 4 th Industrial Revolution. Desired outcomes of the reforms must result in sufficient spectrum being made available to meet demand to enable reductions in the cost to communicate for both consumers and businesses and increase the speed and quality of South Africa’s mobile networks.

According to this process, spectrum currently used by analogue TV signals will be released to mobile network operators, with TV broadcasters moving to digital platforms, in line with the rest of the world. The government has said the migration process will be completed by March 2022. Also, the state has promised that a reformed and improved regulatory framework will enable more investment and a rapid rollout of telecommunications infrastructure by the private sector.

Dicks acknowledged the likely delays in the spectrum auction process as a result of court challenges by some mobile network operators that are unhappy with the process, but expressed the hope that Operation Vulindlela would provide a platform for all parties to negotiate and find a common ground.

“We are currently engaging all actors to find a win-win situation,” he told journalists.

He emphasised that the government would work tirelessly to complete the broadcast digital migration process by March next year, the date committed to by President Cyril Ramaphosa during his State of the Nation Address in February.

Another key blockage identified is streamlining the approval of wayleave applications from municipalities. Wayleaves are the local licences required to build infrastructure (such as towers and base stations) in areas controlled by local government. One of the main gripes from telecoms firms is the wildly different periods these may take to obtain from different municipalities.

The unit’s members are insistent that government departments will remain the lead implementers of the changes.

“The responsibility remains with the… implementers… So, we have to be sure that we don’t cross the implementation line,” said Sean Phillips, who heads up the Vulindela Unit.

If the unit, which focuses on monitoring implementation, is concerned with a department, such as its lack of capacity or unclear policy, the matter will be raised directly with Ramaphosa.

So far successes include raising the licensing threshold for embedded electricity generation, the start of switching off the analogue signal, the revival of blue and green drop water quality assessments, and the publication of a critical skills list and comprehensive review of the framework for attracting skills.

By: Amy Musgrave