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Comms department stands firm on USASSA caretaker appointment

Read time 4min 10sec
USAASA executive caretaker Basil Ford.
USAASA executive caretaker Basil Ford.

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies has moved to quell concerns over the appointment of Basil Ford as executive caretaker at the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa (USAASA).

The controversy around the appointment of Ford to his current position emerged this week, with a dossier circulating alleging he is conflicted as he is a business associate of minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams’s husband Thatho Abrahams.

The minister is the political head of the department and USAASA is one of the many entities that fall directly under her supervision.

According to the dossier seen by ITWeb, Ford didn’t get security clearance for his position as required for all senior government officials.

Additionally, it says the department ignored the serious impropriate reasons why Ford was relieved of his duties by previous employer, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).

The department denies the allegations.

Ndabeni-Abrahams appointed Ford at USAASA from 28 January for a period of 12 months.

The appointment came after Ndabeni-Abrahams was forced to rescind the decision to appoint Newyear Ntuli last December.

Ntuli was appointed as USAASA administrator at the end of last year, with the communications department saying he would serve in the position for 24 months.

However, shortly afterwards, Eyewitness News (EWN) reported that some South African Post Office employees were shocked that Ntuli, who left the state-owned entity following allegations of sexual misconduct, had been appointed by the minister.

According to the EWN report, the minister revealed she was unaware of the allegations against Ntuli when she appointed him, and therefore decided to withdraw the appointment given the seriousness of the claims.

Ford then assumed a dual role of the agency’s accounting authority and accounting officer.

Furthermore, the dossier alleges the recently suspended six officials from USAASA in relation to suspected irregularities concerning the digital migration project were being used as scapegoats for questioning Ford’s alleged dealings within the agency.

According to insiders, at the centre of the clashes at USAASA is the procurement of the 32-inch Integrated Digital Television (IDTV) tender, which has been cancelled twice and is valued at R242 million.

The tender is for the provision of television sets to over 111 000 learners.

The matter was raised in Parliament when Democratic Alliance shadow minister of communications Phumzile Van Damme sought an explanation from Ndabeni-Abrahams over the cancellation of the tender.

The minster responded: “This tender was cancelled for two reasons; namely (i) localisation and local production was not clearly defined in the initial tender which has major economic consequences for South Africa; (ii) the tender needed to be split into two separate tenders to ease the evaluation and adjudication of the tenders and administration thereof.

“The two separated tenders were re-advertised on 12 June 2020, with closing date of 2 July 2020 in the Tender Bulletin with the Tender Numbers (i) USAF-IDTV/02/2020 and (ii) USAF- IDTV/03/2020. USAASA indicated they are at the bid evaluation stage to appoint suppliers for the 32-inch IDTV. It is envisaged that the adjudication will be done in September 2020 and thereafter the distribution of the IDTVs will take effect.”

Yesterday, the department moved quickly to say Ford’s appointment followed the appropriate recruitment process.

It said the assurance comes after public interest in the appointment.

“We do, however, wish to inform the public, categorically, that Ford was appointed by the department to serve as the executive caretaker of USAASA following an appropriate recruitment process by the department, in accordance with all due processes of the department and with the concurrence of the Cabinet,” the department said on Wednesday.

According to the department, interest in the matter followed the judgement in the High Court on the appointment of administrators to public entities in the case involving the Passenger Rail Agency of SA.

“We will not comment on this case at this stage as we understand this judgement to be on appeal and that, as a consequence, its legal effect is suspended.”

The department said Ford’s appointment was due to, among other considerations, his lengthy experience and record on the management of funds, having previously served in a senior capacity at the IDC.

“In the past, there has also been speculative reports by some publications seeking to link the minister’s family members to procurement matters at USAASA. We repeat that USAASA has categorically confirmed that they are not aware of any such involvement.

“As the minister has asked the public before, anyone with evidence of such wrongdoing should immediately report this to law enforcement officers,” the department said.

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