The veil of secrecy around the placing of orders for 1,5 million set-top boxes (STBs) to three suppliers, in the first phase of producing 5 million free STBs and antenna to identified poor households as a key element of South Africa’s migration to digital broadcasting, must be lifted. By Marian Shinn, DA’s Shadow Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services.
My call last week to Minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi, to clarify the status of these orders has gone unheeded. My request to Mr Zami Nkosi, CEO of the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) which is managing the STB project, to confirm three names industry sources have provided me has gone unanswered.
Mr Nkosi last week told ITWeb that 1,5 million STBs had been ordered and that production began at the end of August but would not name who was producing them.
One of the assumed winning bidders, BUA Africa, declined to confirm receipt of an order from USAASA.
A director of the company Mr Thulani Ngesi replied:“Unfortunately I can’t comment or confirm any speculation as you understand I have an effective NDA (sic – Non–disclosure agreement) signed which I can’t be in breach of the terms and reference of such agreement. I suggest you request such information directly from USAASA.”
When I asked for clarity on who imposed the NDA on him he became defensive, without providing clarification.
I have submitted parliamentary questions to the minister asking her to provide details of any orders placed for STBs and antenna and to clarify whether there is an NDA with the winning suppliers and, if one exists, the reasons for this.
It is outrageous that there is not full disclosure on the awarding of these orders and the process by which the three suppliers were chosen from among 26 companies who were appointed to a panel of suppliers who were in line to share the R4,3 billion so far earmarked for the project.
This is taxpayers’ money so there must be full transparency on how it is being spent and who is securing the orders for each component of the free STB project.
So far, National Treasury has approved only R2,390 billion for the programme. This is sourced from levies on annual turnover imposed on telecommunications companies as their contribution to the Universal Service Access Fund (USAF) for the rollout out of universal access to communications infrastructure. USAF is managed by USAASA.
There is no clarity on where the shortfall of about R2 billion will come from although there are proposals to raise further levies from networking companies and to tap into the resources of the Unemployment Insurance Fund to fund training of STB installers.
Since its gazetting in 2012 the Set-Top Box Manufacturing Sector Development Strategy has been subjected to widespread suspicion and speculation about whether it would be a genuine broad-based black enconomic empowerment (BBBEE) project to facilitate new black-owned entrants to South Africa’s electronic manufacturing sector and grow jobs, or whether it would be a fronting exercise enabling the enrichment of politically connected individuals.
Without the necessary transparency of the process in the supply and installation of the STB programme the suspicions of corruption will continue to fester.