Control of the airwaves has always been a hotbed of political intrigue.
In South Africa it was an enticing goal that couldn’t be ignored by the Guptas. To reach their target they required malleable puppets with political power.
Was this the reason for rapid replacements of ministers of communication?
Dina Pule held the post from October 2011 to July 2013, Yunus Carrim from July 2013 to May 2014, and Faith Muthambi from May 2014 to March 2017.
The Zondo Commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture found that Muthambi had abused her office and shared confidential information with the Guptas.
It recommended that she be referred to the NPA on the basis that “there is sufficient evidence on record” to consider charges under the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act (Precca).
Broadcast digital migration and the encryption debate
The Department of Communications commenced a broadcast digital migration (BDM) project to migrate qualifying households from analogue to digital terrestrial television.
When the project was launched, the South African Post Office (Sapo) was appointed as the distribution partner. Anton Jansen van Vuuren, the Sapo project manager for the BDM project, told the commission of challenges facing the Post Office, including the fraudulent completion of the set-top-box (STB) installation voucher forms.
Many parties gave evidence to the commission in regard to BDM, but the commission reasoned that the main question from 2008 onwards was whether set-top boxes should have encryption capabilities or not, and whether Muthambi had the legal authority to make a policy determination.
The commission noted that answering this question falls outside its mandate, but that it should concern the prosecution authorities.
Roy Kruger, technical advisor to ministers Pule and Carrim from January 2012 to July 2014, gave evidence that the government had decided to provide some five million free STBs to poor households. The STB control system could disable or switch off a set-top-box, and incorporated an encryption function that would prevent unauthorised copying or taping of TV and radio programmes.
Sentech, the government-owned TV and radio signal distributor, already had a STB control system in place, and in 2012 Kruger advised Pule of this.
However, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, acting COO of the SABC at the time, decided that the SABC did not require STB control – and signed an agreement with MultiChoice in which MultiChoice “banned” the SABC from using an STB control system on the digital network.
Carrim had set up a forum to get all parties to agree to implement a STB control system. MultiChoice, Motsoeneng, former SABC group CEO Lulama Mokhobo and former SABC chair Ellen Tshabalala agreed.
However, Motsoeneng – supported by Muthambi – went against this.
The commission found that this “points to a clear abuse of power” and questioned why former president Jacob Zuma “stood idly by (if he did) and tolerated this change in policy?”.
Nevertheless, according to the commission, Carrim “conceded that, despite allegations and counter-allegations of corruption, he himself could not attest to having personal knowledge of any fraud and/or corruption in respect of the SABC/MultiChoice Agreement”.
Having listened to a number of different testimonies the commission had to conclude that “there is no evidence on which a finding can be made that MultiChoice’s lobbying in this regard [the encryption debate] included acts of fraud and/or corruption”.
The Gupta leaks exposing Muthambi
Stefanie Fick, head of legal affairs of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) deposed an affidavit on 17 July 2017.
Outa had received a copy of emails from an unknown source that were retrieved from the server of Sahara Computers, a Gupta company, which evidenced “crimes of corruption and high treason” concerning Muthambi.
Muthambi sent a series of emails on confidential matters to Tony Gupta shortly after her appointment as minister of communications in 2014.
Some were sent via former Sahara CEO Ashu Chawla, who passed them on to Tony Gupta or Duduzane Zuma (Jacob Zuma’s son).
She also emailed a copy of the President’s Proclamation on the transfer of administration and powers to Chawla, who forwarded it to Tony Gupta, and on 29 July 2014 she notified Chawla of a cabinet meeting the following day.
Muthambi published her amendments to the Digital Broadcast Migration Policy on 16 March 2015, ignoring features that her predecessor Carrim had proposed in 2013.
Her changes included that:
- The government would not be tied to any dates regarding the digital migration process; and
- The government-subsidised set-top-boxes would not be capable of receiving encrypted signals.
Zuma moved Muthambi to minister of public service and administration on 30 March 2017.
On 24 February 2017 the National Assembly’s ad hoc committee found that Muthambi had “displayed incompetence in carrying out her responsibilities” as the government’ representative of the SABC; that there were many shortcomings in her conduct, particularly in regard to her role in Motsoeneng’s permanent appointment as SABC COO; interference in the board’s decision making; and irregularly amended the Memorandum of Incorporation to centralise power in the minister (at the time her).
A number of court judgments have found against Muthambi:
- The Western Cape High Court found that she acted irrationally and unlawfully in appointing Motsoeneng as COO of the SABC despite the Public Protector’s findings against him (of abuse of power, fraud and maladministration);
- The Supreme Court of Appeal made the same findings against her on a prima facie basis; and
- The Constitutional Court expressed concern at her evasive and suspicious responses, or lack of response, in regard to questions.
The commission concluded that like former ministers Mosebenzi Zwane (mineral resources), Lynne Brown (public enterprises) and Malusi Gigaba (home affairs and later finance) – who were “Gupta Ministers” – she too was a Gupta Minister.
The ‘Honourable Faith Muthambi’ is still in government.
She has been a member of the National Assembly since 2009 and chairs the Portfolio Committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.
Ministers serve at the pleasure of the president. Is Muthambi serving at the pleasure of the Guptas?