Murder mystery haunts Vodacom in Lesotho
SA’s leading mobile carrier, Vodacom Group, is at loggerheads with authorities in Lesotho and risks losing its licence amid allegations the government has launched a campaign to discredit the telco.
Vodacom has since been penalised R8.2 million and has 90 days to explain why it should keep its licence in the landlocked kingdom encircled by South Africa.
At the centre of Vodacom’s troubles in Lesotho are allegations that the telco has fallen out of favour with prime minister Thomas Thabane’s government after sharing his call records in a murder investigation.
Thabane and his wife, Maesaiah, are suspects in the murder investigation, with allegations that the first couple had a hand in the 2017 murder of the prime minister’s then estranged wife, Lipolelo Thabane.
The 58-year-old, who had been living apart from her husband since 2012, was killed two days before Thabane was sworn in as prime minister.
As part of the investigation, law enforcement agencies used cellphone records to investigate the suspects, which Vodacom provided.
Media in Lesotho are reporting that police used Thabane’s call records to link him to the murder of his estranged wife.
According to the reports, Thabane’s cellphone was used to call a person at the scene of the crime “at the time of the assassination”. The police then asked the prime minister to explain whom he was talking to and what they were discussing.
Thabane’s third wife was last week formally charged with murdering Lipolelo and she is out on bail.
Citing sources, the report says it is for this reason that Thabane’s government has unleashed the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) on Vodacom.
On Friday, the LCA announced Vodacom Lesotho had been slapped with an R8 million penalty, claiming the mobile operator had failed to deliver on its obligations as stipulated in law.
The communications authority claims Vodacom failed to pay regulatory fees due at the beginning of July 2019. The LCA also says the operator failed to meet Universal Services Fund obligations in the mountain kingdom. Furthermore, it alleges Vodacom failed to appoint an independent auditor as stipulated by the LCA.
In a statement, the authority said: “On 2 August 2019, Lesotho Communications Authority issued a penalty of M8.2 million (R8.2 million) against Vodacom Lesotho for failure to pay regulatory fees as they fell due and payable on or by 1 July 2019.
“The Lesotho Communications Authority (Licensing Classification and Fees) Rules 2018 prescribe on clear terms that the authority shall impose penalties for non-payment of regulatory fees and prescribes how these penalties shall be imposed.
“On 15 November 2019, Lesotho Communications Authority published a statement notifying the public of the issuance of a penalty against Vodacom Lesotho. The matter is still pending before the High Court.”
Moreover, the LCA claims it paid M900 000 (R900 000) to Vodacom Lesotho to provide Internet to 30 high schools in 2016/17, 60 high schools in 2017/18 and 60 in 2018/19, and it failed to deliver.
“After having received complaints from some schools that had not received Internet as promised, the LCA requested Vodacom Lesotho to provide complete reports in relation to the service.”
It adds: “The Communications Act requires anyone who receives funds from the Universal Service Fund to provide complete and accurate performance reports. The licence conditions of mobile network operators require them to issue timely and accurate billing to its customers. Vodacom Lesotho failed to provide correct, complete and accurate bills on time.”
According to LCA, despite several requests to provide complete and accurate information regarding the provision of Internet to schools, Vodacom Lesotho has still failed to do so.
Perceived conflict of interest
Vodacom has, however, denied the allegations, saying it “is a responsible corporate citizen and will always honour and respect laws and rules applicable in every country where it has operations”.
Byron Kennedy, Vodacom spokesperson, says the group “is aware of regulatory concerns, affecting its Lesotho business, relating to a perceived conflict of interest; timeous payment of regulatory fees as well as non-compliance with Universal Services Fund obligations and tariff rules.
“Vodacom Lesotho has made written representations to the LCA on all these concerns; and will continue to engage meaningfully with a view to finding common ground with the LCA in the interest of our customers, stakeholders and broader Basotho community.”
Vodacom has been operating in Lesotho since 1996 and recently launched Africa’s first 5G service in the country.
The telco says in its 18 years of operation, it has invested over R1 billion in technology and communications infrastructure in the country and controls 80% of the market with 1.4 million customers.