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USAASA CEO leaves as contract ends

Read time 4min 30sec
Lumko Mtimde served as USAASA CEO for three years.
Lumko Mtimde served as USAASA CEO for three years.

Lumko Mtimde no longer serves as CEO of the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (USAASA), after his employment contract expired on 22 May.

According to Mtimde, USAASA is now under the leadership of an acting CEO, Sipho Mngqibisa.

Mtimde was appointed as CEO of USAASA in May 2016. Mtimde at the time replaced Zami Nkosi, who made a quiet exit from the agency in April 2016, when his contract was not renewed.

When Mtimde joined USAASA, he was candid about the agency’s troubles, noting his immediate goal to bring stability to the organisation, create an enabling environment for staff and customers, and position it as a key institution in delivering broadband connectivity in underserviced areas as well as poor communities.

However, his three-year tenure as USAASA chief executive courted controversy, most recently butting heads with set-top box (STB) installation companies.

Conflicting times

USAASA, which falls under the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), was established to help roll out universal connectivity with government and private sector partnerships. It is also in charge of overseeing SA's multibillion-rand digital TV STB rollout.

However, the parastatal has, over the years, come under fire for failing to deliver, abuse of funds and low staff morale. Last year, public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane issued a damning report against the board of directors at USAASA following a complaint related to governance, abuse of power and malpractice.

The matter concerning digital migration STBs and procurement thereof can be described as the biggest thorn in USAASA’s side, as it has been shrouded in controversy.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) previously called on the public protector to investigate the process undertaken to procure government-subsidised STBs. At the time, the DA said investigations into collusion in the process "clearly indicate serious procurement irregularities or criminal acts have been committed".

In August 2017, USAASA filed a legal application requesting a review of the entire STB procurement process and the decision taken by its board to select a panel of service providers to manufacture government STBs.

The agency said due to the fact that it cannot review the previous board's decision to select companies that bid for the STB tender, it is looking to the court to determine a way forward in the continued process of manufacturing STBs.

CEO hot seat

The CEO position at USAASA has also been an area of contention.

In the case of Nkosi, his 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 DTPS did not renew his contract.

Last year, the USAASA board quietly suspended 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 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.

Based on the findings of the public protector’s report, former DTPS minister, Siyabonga Cwele, dismissed the USAASA board of directors. Cwele also exercised the report’s other recommendations that Mtimde be reinstated as CEO in seven days.

Independent analyst Dr Charley Lewis says Mtimde did preside over some interesting shenanigans, noting the set-top box tender saga and consequent audit. The saga, he points out, rumbles on, and its echoes continue to haunt USAASA.

Future moves

Commenting on his next move, Mtimde says: “I am taking a break at home till further notice.”

Prior to joining USAASA, Mtimde served as head of the state-funded Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA). He was also chief of staff in agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister Senzeni Zokwana's office.

A senior African National Congress member and former board member of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Mtimde stepped down from his position as MDDA CEO in 2014 after eight years at the helm.

He also served as acting CEO of Alfred Nzo Development Agency and councillor of both the Independent Broadcasting Authority and Independent Communications Authority of SA.

With Mtimde’s contract having ended, Mngqibisa will act as the agency’s chief executive until a permanent replacement has been found.

Not much information is available on Mngqibisa, except that he also acted as CEO when Mtimde was suspended last year.

According to USAASA’s Web site, Mngqibisa is an executive committee member and acting executive manager for performance management.

“The new occupant of the CEO’s position will have the unenviable task of presiding over the much-welcomed demise of the agency and its replacement by the planned Digital Development Fund, where hopefully opportunities for dipping into the public purse will be greatly reduced,” concludes Lewis.

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