DA intensifies calls for set-top box probe

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Calls for investigation into STB procurement corruption intensify.
Calls for investigation into STB procurement corruption intensify.

Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane can no longer ignore the Democratic Alliance's (DA's) request for a probe into the procurement process of the government-sponsored set-top boxes (STBs).

So says DA MP and telecoms and postal services shadow minister, Marian Shinn.

According to Shinn, the DA has once again written to Mkhwebane's office to request she proceed without further delay to investigate the process undertaken to procure government-subsidised STBs - a key component of the broadcast digital migration (BDM) process.

Government has committed to supply five million subsidised STBs to qualifying South African households. The procurement process of these digital migration decoders has continued to be marred by legal battles, bribery and corruption allegations.

The latest comes from a Sunday Times report at the weekend, which revealed the Hawks raided 13 of the 26 firms involved in the STB tender, following a 10-month investigation by the Competition Commission into collusion in the process.

In addition, the latest Gupta-leak has reportedly pointed to undue influence on former communications minister Faith Muthambi to change the BDM policy.

STB collusion

Shinn believes the latest revelations, in conjunction with a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) investigation into the STB tender process, clearly indicate serious procurement irregularities or criminal acts have been committed and must be acted upon.

In 2015, the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (USAASA), which has been charged with the responsibility of managing the production and installation of STBs, decided to award a R4.3 billion tender to manufacture the digital migration decoders to all of the 26 companies that bid for the tender.

Following growing criticism and questions regarding the capacity of those bidders to deliver the digital migration STBs, the communications department, led by Muthambi at the time, sought National Treasury to conduct an investigation into the appropriateness of USAASA tenders.

Treasury commissioned PwC to investigate the process and its report was handed to Muthambi.

According to Shinn, the DA is looking to the office of the public protector to probe the procurement process, investigate alleged tender irregularities and possible unlawful decision-making, and determine whether the entire BDM process needs to be cancelled and re-run, among other issues.

"The PwC report that was forwarded to the minister of telecommunications and postal services, who has administrative authority of the BDM programme while the minister of communications has executive authority over it, has not been acted upon because it is a draft."

Shinn believes there is something in the report that Muthambi and telecommunications and postal services minister Siyabonga Cwele do not want the public to see.

Responding to ITWeb via e-mail, USAASA CEO Lumko Mtimde says acting in terms of the auditor-general's report on its 2015/2016 audit, it reported the matter of possible collusion in the process regarding the STB tender to the Competition Commission for investigation.

"USAASA continues to cooperate with the Competition Commission; we await the outcome of the investigation and cannot comment on the referred [to] Sunday Times report."

Encryption vs no encryption

DA shadow minister of telecoms and postal services Marian Shinn.
DA shadow minister of telecoms and postal services Marian Shinn.

The latest Gupta-leaks reportedly reveal how Tony Gupta acted to influence Muthambi to change the BDM policy.

Muthambi drew criticism for amending the African National Congress (ANC) policy in terms of the technical specification of digital migration STBs.

The former communications minister adopted the amendment that calls for the use of unencrypted decoders, a decision she said was in line with unconditionally providing free access to content for citizens in all corners of SA.

The amendments to the ruling party's policy resulted in a public spat between Muthambi and higher education minister Blade Nzimande, who lambasted the former communications minister for defying ANC and alliance decisions on digital migration.

Communications minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane reportedly told eNCA that "as far as she knows there was no Gupta influence in Muthambi's decision over the encryption of STBs".

Legal guidance

Former communications minister Faith Muthambi.
Former communications minister Faith Muthambi.

In August, USAASA applied to the North Gauteng High Court to review the process that was followed in appointing 26 companies to manufacture government STBs.

The agency said due to the fact that it can't 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.

According to Mtimde, the application lodged with the High Court is in respect of invalidating the entire STB procurement process and the appointment of the service providers on the panel, including suspending the invalidation in respect of existing contracts.

USAASA awaits the hearing date to be confirmed by the High Court, says the CEO.

The DA remains resolute, and will not be deterred by the obvious tactics to sweep the irregularities and corruption in the BDM process under the rug, Shinn concludes.

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