The Universal Service & Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa) has been plunged into deeper crisis after suspended CEO Lumko Mtimde this week laid a formal complaint with the public protector over his suspension and his fight with the organisation’s board.
At the same time, telecommunications & postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele, in response to questions from TechCentral ahead of his department’s budget vote in parliament on Thursday, said government is “actively engaged” in attempting to solve the deep-rooted problems afflicting the agency.
TechCentral can reveal that Mtimde has lodged a detailed complaint against Usaasa and its board with the public protector, Busi Mkhwebane, asking for her urgent intervention over his suspension and other problems affecting the organisation.
In the complaint, Mtimde, who was suspended earlier this year, has asked the protector to protect his rights as CEO; interdict an Usaasa disciplinary committee process pending an investigation by her office; and investigate alleged abuse of power by the agency’s board as well as its alleged failure to meet their obligations and fiduciary duties. He also wants the protector to probe whether certain Usaasa board members are fit to hold office.
TechCentral first revealed earlier this month that Mtimde had been suspended by Usaasa. This happened on 14 March. News of the suspension first came to light when Usaasa presented its annual performance plan to parliament, where board chairman Mawethu Cawe introducing Sipho Mngqibisa as acting CEO.
Mtimde took the Usaasa board to the labour court on 24 April on an urgent basis and his application was dismissed with costs. Mtimde told TechCentral on 3 May that the court had only decided it wouldn’t hear the matter on an urgent basis and that it would still consider the case “on the normal court roll”.
It is clear from court papers in TechCentral’s possession that there was a complete breakdown of relations between Mtimde and the board, chaired by Mawethu Cawe.
The board accused him of a long list of transgressions (see story), while Mtimde accused Mawethu and the board of acting in “retaliation” against him after he reported what he described as the “unlawful action” of the board to national treasury, the auditor-general and minister Cwele. He accused the board of the long-troubled agency, which was established to improve ICT services in underserviced communities, of acting unlawfully. In legal correspondence seen by TechCentral, Usaasa has denied these allegations.
Cwele said on Thursday that he is “concerned” about the developments at the agency. He said his deputy, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has spent considerable time at the agency recently to have it “focus on the key projects they are supposed to be doing instead of focusing on petty squabbles”.
“They must focus on cleaning up the organisation from some of the bad elements… Usaasa has had several SIU (Special Investigating Unit) investigations… Cleaning up is very important. We have been saying there should be clear separation of duties between executive management and the board.”
Cwele said Mtimde has written to him asking him to intervene, but said he is “constrained” from doing so as the suspended CEO has named him as a respondent in the papers lodged with the labour court.
“But we are really worried about what is happening, because Usaasa has many critical projects to assist underserviced areas and people with access,” the minister said. “Usaasa is leading key projects which will help us release spectrum soon.”
Telecoms department director-general Mabuse Nkuna said that in Usaasa’s 21-year history it has had “no less than 10 CEOs”.
“The question arises as to what is actually happening at Usaasa,” he said. “We are making sure that during this difficult period the key projects do not collapse. These pertain to broadband and the digital (television) migration programme. We are engaging with the team … to ensure those projects are not affected.”
Ndabeni-Abrahams told TechCentral that Mtimde is within his rights “to appeal to anyone if he feels aggrieved. Going to the public protector is his constitutional right.” — © 2018 NewsCentral Media