[By Candice Jones]
“Sentech is dysfunctional.” These were the opening words of a column my colleague Duncan McLeod wrote in September last year. Make no mistake: the state-owned signal distributor was in more trouble then than a certain Libyan dictator is today.
Jokes aside, one of the most important cogs in SA’s broadcasting industry — the company carries most of the country’s terrestrial television and radio signals — was in danger of collapse.
Six months ago, Sentech couldn’t collect more than 60% of the money it was owed, its former leadership went to ground amid accusations of mismanagement, and the auditor-general was concerned it wouldn’t be able to pay its bills when the creditors came knocking.
To add insult to injury, Sentech couldn’t get its act together long enough to make a presentation to parliament’s portfolio committee on communications.
Suddenly, though, things are looking up. The company made its latest strategic plan known to the portfolio committee on Friday. And what I saw during its presentation was like day to the night of just six months ago.
In the past half year, Sentech has implemented an aggressive turnaround strategy. Former chairman Quraysh Patel and a task team installed to find a way for the Sentech to survive conceived of the plan and began its implementation. And it was under the strong hand of Patel that Setumo Mohapi was installed as CEO.
Mohapi, a former senior Telkom executive, took over from Sebiletso Mokone-Matabane, who took “early retirement” after the task team discovered just how much trouble the company was in.
It’s not surprising that Mokone-Matabane ran for the hills. Under her tenure, the company lurched into deep crisis. Mohapi has made no excuses for the company’s lingering problems. Rather, he presented focused and manageable solutions to parliament. Every scrap of information was tabulated, documented and specially noted for the committee.
MPs told me after Mohapi’s presentation that they had been prepared to come down on Sentech executives and board members like a ton of bricks if they didn’t present a coherent strategy to them. But they left the presentation impressed by his detailed plan.
Not only did Sentech provide insight into the company’s turnaround strategy, it also provided a detailed overview of its progress in migrating the country from analogue to digital terrestrial television and its plans to build a national broadband network serving rural and poorly serviced parts of SA.
The broadband plan is already raising concerns given how Sentech botched its first attempt at building a network — the MyWireless product was canned in 2009 after the company proved it was unable to compete with better-resourced and more nimble private-sector operators in the retail consumer market. This time around, though, Mohapi is convinced its plan will work, and it will do it without competing with commercial operators. Or so it says, promising to provide wholesale connectivity instead.
I don’t think we should dismiss its plans out of hand. If done right, it will bring broadband access to schools and clinics around the country, something Telkom and other commercial providers have failed to achieve. Of course, the project warrants close scrutiny, especially given that taxpayers’ money will be involved.
That said, I have much more confidence in this management team delivering on its promises. They should probably be given a chance to prove themselves.