South Africans push back against 5G towers in their backyards

Over worries towers will devalue the properties.
Image: Bloomberg

Tens of thousands of South Africans have written complaints to the government over a new policy that would let mobile networks build cellphone infrastructure like 5G towers on private land, which they say could devalue their property.

Since communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams gazetted the policy last week, dissent has poured in through the website Dear South Africa, which collects online submissions to challenge or co-form policies before they become law.

“There are concerns about radiation, about the resale value of properties and about this being used as an excuse to expropriate land without compensation,” the group’s founder, Rob Hutchinson, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank.

These divides are seen along digital lines, too, with a study by the Research ICT Africa think tank showing only 11% of households have broadband internet access – hampering access to online education, among other services.

The government’s proposal says network operators “have the right to enter upon and use public and private land”, citing the need for “high speed, high quality networks” to ensure that “rural areas do not lag behind”.

But critics worry this is a ruse to exploit private property owners.

“This policy proposes that network operators can erect infrastructure on private land, and property owners cannot charge an access fee and are liable for any damage to the infrastructure,” said Hutchinson.

According to the draft policy, owners can charge a “reasonable” access fee if the network operator makes any intrusive changes to their land but are liable for any damage they cause to communications facilities.

Damage to property caused by the network provider must be repaired by the company and the property owner is entitled to reasonable compensation, the policy said.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies was not immediately available for comment.

MTN Group , Africa’s largest mobile network operator by subscribers, welcomed the rapid rollout of cellphone infrastructure.

“This lag in providing services does little to enable a digital environment for all,” said Jacqui O’Sullivan, the company’s executive for corporate affairs in South Africa, stressing that the policy is still in the draft phase.

“The draft document is open to comment by all interested parties, including MTN, ensuring that the final document is a robust and balanced document that addresses the concerns of all parties,” O’Sullivan said over WhatsApp.

More than 42,000 submissions were collated through the Dear South Africa site from across all nine provinces in the country, detailing concerns over the public’s right to privacy, property ownership and a healthy and safe environment.

“Private property is owned by us private individuals, therefore I refuse to be bullied by the govt to erect infrastructure at no cost on my property,” wrote a resident whose name was anonymised by the platform.

“Private property is private (bought and paid for). The health risks are unknown. No thank you,” wrote another.

O’Sullivan at MTN said 5G is safer than people think.

“While there are allegations that 5G is already causing health problems, including the novel coronavirus, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this,” she said.

Hutchinson said giving residents the chance to air their complaints now could help them avoid the “expensive and lengthy process” or protecting their property rights later.

“Raising your concerns through an official channel provides a legal opportunity to shape policy before implementation,” he said.

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“These divides are seen along digital lines, too, with a study by the Research ICT Africa think tank showing only 11% of households have broadband internet access – hampering access to online education, among other services.”

Did the think tank get as far as realizing that these plans will target already well serviced areas and the poor will be left to fend for themselves. They always use these equality arguments to trample over peoples rights.

Just be practical. If a cellphone company put their equipment on my property, they will want to enter my premises whenever they want to do maintenance or upgrades. The next thing will be the key to my gate. The key will be given to any of their technicians and each technician will make copies for himself. Should they terminate his employment, he will still have free access to my premises. It strikes me that the ministers just can not think something through. Maybe that is why most of their plans are failures. Or is this part of governments “affirmative shopping” exercise, with the intention of promoting theft?
In each city there are municipal buildings, government buildings and government land spread over the whole city. Why can these equipment not be put there, then government can show us how they will protect it. Why make it the burden of the property owner?

I think we need to calm down, most of us have a Telkom phone pole or two on our property without any fuss. Better than being left behind with last century tech while the rest of the world moves on. I understand the equipment will be very small and low key.

End of comments.

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