Communications ministry reveals key timelines for USAASA
The timeframe for the dissolution of embattled government entity the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA) has been scheduled for March 2023.
This information came to light during the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT) briefing to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications.
This week, the department and its entities presented their budgets and annual performance plans for the 2021/2022 financial year to the portfolio committee as part of preparation for the budget votes.
DCDT acting director-general Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani said the timeframe for the dissolution is externally dependent on Cabinet and Parliament.
However, the department hopes that USAASA/USAF (the Universal Service and Access Fund) will be dissolved by the end of March 2023, stated Jordan-Dyani, adding that is why it granted the go-ahead for the appointments of the new CEO and CFO at the agency until such time.
“We’ve seen that it’s rather a prolonged period and that there is need for leadership, considering the strategic role USAASA is currently playing in all of our programmes and supporting the [digital] migration as well as the broadband rollout.”
News of USAASA’s dismantling was announced in 2016 when it was revealed that Cabinet had approved the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper, paving the way for its dissolution.
Siyabonga Cwele, who served as minister of the then-Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), indicated the ICT policy recommends the dissolution of USAASA and the existing USAF into a standalone funding agency, the Digital Development Fund (DDF).
It’s been noted that the DDF will focus on the extension of infrastructure, end-user and equipment subsidies, supporting digital literacy and skills development, extend access to digital government services, and support innovation of small, medium and micro-sized enterprises.
Furthermore, the DDF will be a distinct fund established by and accountable to the minister of communications.
USAASA interim board member Mapuleng Moropa reiterated to the committee that USAASA will be dissolved and converted into a fund, DDF. “The deadline we are looking at for that is March 2023.”
USAASA is the administrative component of the government agency, while USAF is the operational part that speaks to key strategic projects.
Over the years, USAASA, whose mandate is to promote and pursue the goal of providing universal communications access and service, has faced allegations of serious maladministration, unlawful conduct and unlawful expenditure.
Government established USAASA under the Electronic Communications Act to promote the goals of universal access and universal service in the under-serviced areas of SA.
The agency’s main focus has always been implementing government’s multibillion-rand Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) programme, and rolling out connectivity in strategic areas through the broadband project.
The troubled USAASA was also charged with the procurement of the digital migration set-top boxes (STBs). However, management and rollout of the STBs has also been shrouded in controversy.
Currently, USAASA has partnered with state signal distributor Sentech to assist with the rollout of phase one of the BDM project.
The agency’s CEO position has also been an area of contention in the past.
Former CEO Zami Nkosi’s appointment was widely criticised following allegations that he was hired irregularly. Following his appointment, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) moved to investigate these allegations.
The SIU called for Nkosi to leave his post. However, he stayed in his role until the then-DTPS did not renew his contract.
In 2018, the USAASA board quietly suspended former CEO Lumko Mtimde pending a disciplinary hearing. At the time, the agency said the suspension was related to allegations of various acts of misconduct.
Following his suspension, Mtimde took USAASA to the Labour Court. He also asked public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane to investigate alleged abuse of power by the board.
The disagreement emanated from the appointment of a company secretary by the USAASA board. Mtimde claimed the appointment was irregular and in contravention of various legislation.
Following Mtimde’s departure, the CEO position has been occupied by persons in an acting capacity, including Sipho Mngqibisa and Dr Mashilo Boloka.
In January 2020, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams appointed an executive caretaker, Basil Ford, who assumed a dual role of the agency’s accounting authority and accounting officer.
There was also some controversy surrounding Ford’s appointment, but the DCDT stood firm on the USASSA caretaker’s appointment.
USAASA confirmed to ITWeb that Ford left the agency in February.
Chwayita Madikizela currently serves as the agency’s acting CEO.