Sinking with the Titanic Telkom

05 November 2012 - 02:09 By Toby Shapshak
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Image: Times LIVE

The most damage done to South Africa's telecoms landscape was caused, it is generally agreed, by the protectionist policies of Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, whose nickname, "Poison Ivy", was most apt.

Until this week that is, when her successor as communications minister, Dina Pule, behaved with such inexplicable weirdness that it takes government meddling to a new nadir.

At the Telkom AGM, the government - which is the majority shareholder with a 39.8% stake and an additional 10.9% through its pension fund-managing Public Investment Corporation - had submitted a proxy vote, which Pule tried, successfully, to change.

The result was she voted off four non-executive board members, one of whom, a six-year veteran of the Telkom board, was tipped as its next chairman, and another a Public Investment Corporation nominee to the board.

It's so utterly bizarre, it makes the pre-Mangaung madness seem almost sane. This is the board of the country's biggest telecoms company; a key state asset that should be doing its utmost to make the lives of its citizens better by providing cheap and reliable services that will enable the information economy to grow.

But, like all the other state-controlled paralysed-statals, it is in chaos because this dysfunctional administration's malaise has infected it and destroyed all fiduciary responsibility. SAA, Eskom and Sentech can't survive without government bailouts, or fleecing their customers - the long-suffering citizens of the country they are meant to serve.

As with all government dealings with Telkom - which include voting against Korea Telecoms buying a 20% stake in the company earlier this year and perhaps infusing it with much-needed skills - it is impossible to understand the reasoning behind this latest Pule debacle.

Telkom is an enigma, to say the least, especially to the industry that unfortunately still relies on it. It has a decent, well-intentioned and capable CEO in Pinky Moholi, getting to grips with everything required of a modern telco. It recently hired the highly regarded Deon Liebenberg, former MD of Samsung SA and head of BlackBerry in Southern Africa, to run Telkom Business, and there are good noises emanating from this division.

But Telkom's majority shareholder, which appears to be more concerned with holding onto prized jobs for pals than actually running the country, has behaved more strangely than ever before.

Pule has recently had to refute strong claims that her boyfriend was buying her red-soled high-heeled Prada shoes. He was allegedly generously compensated for helping run a R104-million indaba for the Department of Communications.

Compare that over-priced indaba to last week's excellently organised Tech4Africa, which had entrepreneurs from all over Africa speaking about overcoming difficulties and succeeding against the odds. This is what the country needs to hear, not the drivel sprouted at Pule's ill-conceived indaba.

In other democracies those claims would be enough to force a cabinet minister to resign. But why should she? In this Zumaville country of ours, where the R248-million Nkandlagate is brushed under the carpet like all the other Zuma-related corruption stories, if the chief can behave like a banana republic tinpot dictator, why shouldn't his ministers laugh off dereliction of duty, shareholder malfeasance and personal corruption?

If South Africa is like the Titanic - as President Jacob Zuma so inadvisably described our country seemingly unaware that, like South Africa right now, the ship was sinking - then Telkom is like the Titanic about 15 minutes before it actually sinks below the waves.

Telkom is a wounded beast that has been taking on water for years. The only problem is, it's taking us down with it.