Industry experts sound alarm as another SITA CEO quits

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 11 Dec 2023
Industry weighs in as SITA’s 22nd CEO steps down.
Industry weighs in as SITA’s 22nd CEO steps down.

“Tragic” and a “loss of black talent leadership” are some of the words used to describe the exit of Dr Bongani Mabaso as CEO of the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) after only eight months on the job.

On Friday, SITA confirmed its chief executive officer will leave at the end of the year, after his request to be released early from his five-year employment contract.

Mabaso joined the government agency on 1 April. According to SITA, he indicated the desire to pursue interests elsewhere, aligned with his career direction and growth, and is serving his notice period.

His exit from the embattled IT agency marks another entity under the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies portfolio without a permanent head at the helm.

Loss for all

Dr Setumo Mohapi, founder and director of Martingale Capital – a former SITA CEO and the last to have completed his full tenure in the top job – believes Mabaso was “frustrated out of the job”.

Mohapi told ITWeb that the CEO’s exit is a tragedy. “We had an opportunity to build… Bongani represented continuity in relation to the strategy of transforming government into a driver of the digital economy. There’s continuity between what I was doing and what he was saying.

“It’s a loss for everybody because that strategy of using government as the foundation to drive the digital platform of South Africa is lost.

“The loss is two-fold: the discontinuity in the digital programme for the digital transformation of the country and a tragedy for young black talent.

“I think Bongani is eminently more qualified than most… why was he not given the opportunity to express his talent and experience?”

Mabaso, who has a PhD in machine ethics and computational morality from the University of Pretoria and a BSc in engineering from the University of Cape Town, previously served as CIO of digital and customer journeys at Standard Bank Corporate and Investment Banking.

Prior to that, he held various roles at parastatal Transnet, including executive research manager in its engineering division.

Dr Bongani Mabaso is this month serving his notice period at the embattled State IT Agency.
Dr Bongani Mabaso is this month serving his notice period at the embattled State IT Agency.

Rabelani Dagada, professor of practice in digital transformation at the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Johannesburg, highlights that losing efficient CEOs in state-owned entities and directors-general in departments has sometimes proved to be fatal.

“SITA has lost a highly-experienced, energetic and efficient CEO, who was working hard to clean the mess he inherited. What drives CEOs like Mabaso out of the state-owned entities is mostly interference by the shareholder and board of directors.

“SITA is the biggest procurer of ICT services and products in the country. Due to its massive budget, SITA gets lots of attention from various stakeholders. This includes the private sector. It is on this premise that the minister or board members would like to influence the CEO on behalf of certain stakeholders that have vested interests. This influence largely manifests itself in procurement-related matters.”

Leon Rolls, president of lobby group Progressive Blacks in ICT, says Mabaso’s resignation doesn’t come as a surprise.

“We had a meeting with Dr Mabaso within his first month in office and he shared his vision with us for SITA. It was too progressive and inclusive for the type of people serving on that board.

“We warned him about the counter-revolutionary forces that lurk in the shadows of SITA, controlling the organisation and the boards like puppets on a string.”

Rolls believes the problem at SITA is the board, and urges the minister to investigate the allegations of overreach and suspend the entire board during the investigation.

“It was a very big mistake to bring back people that failed SITA and the sector to serve on the board. Dr Mabaso had a good vision for SITA and this is a serious loss for government and the country.

“Fire the board and re-instate Dr Mabaso as a caretaker. Let him fix SITA for you, and then you can appoint a new board and MD that will drive the new vision.”

Constant leadership changes

SITA is no stranger to numerous challenges over the course of its more than 20-year history, not least its leadership instability.

Over the years, the agency has had less than three executive heads stay the duration of their employment term, with many leaving within three months to a little over a year.

Mabaso was the agency’s 22nd MD and its first permanent MD following the resignation of Mohapi in March 2019.

Mark Walker, associate vice-president for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC, says it’s disappointing that Mabaso is leaving, as the industry had high hopes that his tenure would bring stability, accountability and transparency to the agency.

“This is most unfortunate, as high leadership turnover and continuing uncertainty does not bode well for an organisation tasked with this highly-important portfolio within the public sector.

“The role of technology is critical in an effective state. Without a cleanly-managed, professional and accountable procurement agency, the state is effectively hobbled at the outset of any digital transformation journey which, in turn, denies citizens to benefit from the speed and efficiency that technology brings.”

As a result of Mabaso’s exit, Dagada believes the inefficiencies, lack of urgency and corruption he was trying to clean-up will likely remain entrenched. “This does not bode well for clean governance and efficient service delivery. The biggest loser is not SITA, but rather the taxpayers and citizens.

“It should be emphasised that the needy and SMMEs are most negatively affected by the instability in SITA. Among others, SITA has been working with some provincial governments to rollout broadband infrastructure to underserviced areas.

“In the absence of stability, some of these projects will be derailed and people in underserviced areas shall continue to live without adequate access to internet services,” noted Dagada.

SITA focuses on IT and tender operations (ops), states Mohapi. “If we take tender ops out of SITA, then the entity will focus on IT ops and the noise will follow the tender ops. This is the only way SITA will have a chance to do what it was supposed to do.

“Take tender ops to the National Treasury or the supply chain management [SCM] of the government departments and let them do their own SCM.

“SITA can then be a home for digital networks and public service digital innovators,” Mohapi concludes.