Arthur Goldstuck
Arthur Goldstuck

Now employing: Signpost for 2010

Two ads in the latest Sunday Times were seemingly innocuous: six posts advertised for Broadband Infraco and 13 for the Department of Home Affairs. But between the lines, they said so much.

To start with, the Home Affairs ad was headlined “Building the New Home Affairs”. That’s a positive sign to start with; an acknowledgement that Home Affairs as it had been structured and the way it had been operating simply wasn’t good enough.

The ad went on to list 13 positions, including nine for regional IT support officers, and one for a “Director: Networks (Technical)”. The job description for the regional support officers included one fascinating line: “Identifying suitable workarounds that provide staff with service improvement while a more permanent solution is sought.”

This suggests that the current staffing infrastructure is intended to represent a transition, and that a better Home Affairs is indeed the ultimate quest. The main danger, of course, is that the department may remain in a permanent state of transition, in which case a better Home Affairs will remain an unattainable myth.

The second ad explains that “Broadband Infraco is a State-led intervention to rapidly normalise telecoms market market efficiency by commoditising only those parts of infrastructure that impede private sector development and innovation in telecoms services and content offerings”.

No, it is not an initiative to further liberalise the market (please forgive the split infinitive, but they started), which would have just that effect. Rather, it is intended to bring broadband access to companies and service providers at rates dramatically below prevailing costs.

Broadband Infraco is the lead player in the development of the West Africa Cable System, due to come on stream by the end of 2011, and providing the west coast of Africa with the highest capacity undersea cable that the continent has ever seen.

What makes the advertisement a significant signpost is what it reveals about terrestrial infrastructure and where most emphasis is going to lie in that infrastructure. The ad calls for suitably qualified people in facilities maintenance, fibre-optic cable maintenance, and fibre-optic terminal maintenance in six centres: Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Durban and Polokwane.

The focus on these six centres is all the more significant in that the emphasis of national broadband backbones until now has been on the traditional three major centres, ie Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. While Broadband Infraco has always been known to be home to a national network, it has not been obvious that it has hubs in all major centres. The ad brings this point neatly home.

Johannesburg will clearly be the nerve centre of the operation, with maintenance manager, network operations systems engineer and network operators all to be based in the city.

The ad also highlights the demand for a new generation of technicians in a fibre-optic era. Electrical engineers (both diplomaed and degreed) with experience in telecommunications will find themselves in demand. But it is the requirement of the network operations systems engineer that highlights the multidisciplinary requirements of these technicians: the successful applicant must be “proficient in the different technologies used in fixed and mobile telecommunications networks”.

With luck, that should mean an organisation that is not obsessed with a single connectivity technology, as Telkom has tended to be over time (first ISDN, then ADSL), but will embrace a task-oriented approach to its technology decisions.

If both Broadband Infraco and the Department of Home Affairs can achieve their technology goals in 2010, they will also help kick-start long-overdue improvement in a dramatically wide range of services, from e-government and a faster passport application process to improved quality and cost of phone calls.

May these two innocuous ads be the start of greater things for South Africa.

  • Gerry

    From your lips to God’s ears…

    In my opinion, its the restrictive – if not draconian – state of telecoms and severe lack of any form of bandwidth that keeps SA in the dark ages. I agree – infrastructure costs money, and we do not have a large enough economic ecosystem to genuinely warrant a broadband network on par with europe and the US, but its a bit of a chicken and egg situation, isn’t it?

    Forget “a chicken in every pot” – if we can have “information access for everyone”, imagine what that will do for (voter) education in SA.

    This would be a major step in joining the 21st century – heck, even joining the 20th century, for the bulk of saffers.

    Ah, imagine, true uncapped broadband at pennies to the gig like they have in real countries…

  • Peter Joffe

    Building a new Home Affairs is great. The present one is a disgrace and corrupt from top to bottom. Lets hope that ‘corruption’ and non performance are not built into the new Home affairs. Lets hope that the posts are given to people with the right skills and not to those who have only the right colour. Don’t hold your breath though as there are so many financial gains that are built into this “service” that the entire staff needs to be changed and there is not much chance of that happening. Perhaps some of the 230,000 failed matrics can be placed in these high tech positions??
    It is time that the labour laws are changed so that good people keep their jobs and bad people lose theirs.

  • Mike

    We will believe it when we see it.

  • MLH

    I so agree with your second-last para, but won’t be holding my breath! We are all too likely to end up with more Telkom/Eskom/Transnet entities.
    If SARS could improve so radically, why can’t they? I suspect it all has to do with the culture of charging whatever fee government chooses to. There is absolutely no excuse for Home Affairs and its minister says they will only supply IDs for ayear before concentrating on 16-year-olds. Wherever does she think the crime wave is going next year? That’s the reason so many need replacements!

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  • Dennis Ryder

    Nice article. Please note that Home Affairs have already jacked themselves up to a large degree. You can track your passport/ID online, recent applications processed from myself and my brother-in-law (on separate occasions) were processed accurately and turnaround times were as promised.
    Paragraph 4 indicates that a state of permanent transition is dangerous. My belief is that constant transition is necessary to ensure relevance, especially in a department that has such important roles, protecting our international integrity and protecting us from the uncontrolled influx that we have seen is common in all successful countries around the world.