Telkom is in limbo. At the end of May, when government decided not to support the sale of 20% of the group’s equity to Korea’s KT Corp, communications minister Dina Pule was given three months to come up with a strategic plan for the troubled telecommunications operator. For months, the options she presented have been bubbling around in something she has euphemistically called “the cabinet processes”.
It’s now clear as daylight that the lack of urgency and the uncertainty this is creating, coupled with the misguided belief by political leaders that they know better than business executives how to develop a strategy for the organisation, is damaging Telkom, possibly irreparably.
How, it must be asked, can Telkom possibly hope to attract the calibre of management talent it needs to compete with powerful rivals such as Vodacom, MTN and Cell C if government insists on constantly interfering in the business?
The same applies to the board, which, thanks to Pule’s bizarre and reckless intervention at Telkom’s annual general meeting two weeks ago, now doesn’t even have sufficient directors to form a quorum to elect a new CEO. Nor does it have a chairman after Pule voted against the reelection of lead independent nonexecutive director Sibusiso Luthuli, who would have stepped into the role following the resignation of Lazarus Zim.
The worry now, of course, is that CEO Nombulelo Moholi’s resignation will set off a chain reaction, with other top executives, fed up with government’s meddling, throwing in the towel. Heavyweights such as chief financial officer Jacques Schindehütte, wholesale and networks MD Bashier Sallie and Telkom Business MD Brian Armstrong have been firing well as a team, making progress in taking the operator down a new strategic path and away from the mistakes of the past that nearly ruined it. It would be highly unfortunate if any of these executives were to leave.
Telkom is in a sorry state, and the blame for the mess — which is likely to get a lot worse unless government backs away from treating the partially privatised company as merely an extension of the state — has to be laid somewhere. That somewhere is at the door of the minister of communications.
It bears asking what exactly Pule has achieved in the year or so she’s been in the role, which she took over from the late Roy Padayachie. In three crucial areas, she gets a failing grade: Telkom has lurched into a fresh leadership crisis as a direct result of her interference in the management of the company; deadlines for the migration to digital terrestrial television continue to be missed; and progress in dealing with the radio frequency spectrum that is needed for next-generation mobile broadband has been lamentably slow.
It’s often too easy for journalists and editors to write editorials or columns of opinion calling for senior politicians’ heads to roll. It seldom achieves anything. After calling for someone’s resignation, media outlets are often left feeling deflated when the person in question continues to hold high political office.
So, I’m not going to be silly enough to use this space to call for Pule to be fired. However, in light of the chaos at Telkom and the lack of progress in many of the key areas of her portfolio, the minister’s performance does need to be scrutinised much more carefully.
The communications sector is far too important to the development of SA’s economy to be left in the hands of an ineffectual politician. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media