Durban – STELLA Ndabeni-Abrahams, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies is at the centre of a R1.8 billion scandal where funds were sourced from National Treasury in early March to finance a Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) project through the Universal Service Access Agency of South Africa (Usaasa) which has still not materialised.
The project was supposed to benefit Grade 12 pupils at the start of the Convid-19 pandemic but has not yet taken flight.
Pupils from poor communities were to be kept up to date with their educational programmes via the SABC’s platforms during the lockdown.
However, it will no longer be relevant as they are already in the middle of their final exams. These explosive details were revealed by an employee in top management at Usaasa who wished not to be identified.
The whistle-blower stated that more than 880 000 DTT set-top boxes costing Usaasa about R6 million a month were gathering dust at the Post Office as South Africa continued to fall behind schedule in switching from analogue to digital signal.
The project, which forms part of Usaasa’s Broadcasting Digital Migration (BDM) Programme, would get the assistance of installation services through the Universal Service Access Fund (USAF) which falls under Usaasa. However, in a letter written by National Treasury’s Deputy Director-General for Public Finance Dr Mampho Modise on May 6 to Usaasa’s newly appointed caretaker, Basil Ford, it was confirmed that the approval was on condition that it did not form part of the BDM programme.
Modise also confirmed that National Treasury granted provisional approval for surplus funds from interest earned amounting to R242m to be retained by the USAF for the 2019/20 financial year.
“These funds will be used to assist Grade 12 learners affected by the lockdown due to the Covid-19 virus.”
Ndabeni-Abrahams is accused of appointing Ford because he is a close associate of her husband Thato Abrahams who apparently controls the Usaasa DTT set-top box budget, according to the source.
Ndabeni-Abrahams and her husband had previously denied his involvement in several projects, and did not respond to questions about the TV project.
“Basil’s tenure has been nothing less than a Hollywood movie alongside Usaasa’s acting chief financial officer Frik Nieman seconding him to ensure the procurement of more than 100 000 TVs for the matriculants affected by the lockdown with an estimated cost of R242m channelled through to companies linked to Thato Abrahams,” the source said.
“The minister also wanted the board to appoint Sentech to run the digital migration and the broadband roll out, respectively, which Usaasa would have had to bankroll as it has done with the SA Post Office distribution of DTT settop boxes costing Usaasa millions.”
He added that Nieman, who is also chairperson of Usaasa’s Bid Adjudication Committee (BAC) organised a late night meeting via a virtual platform on September 20 where members of BAC met Sentech to discuss its appointment for the R1.8bn project.
The National Treasury confirmed that they gave approval to use surplus funds from the interest earned (R242m) to assist Grade 12s through rolling out digital TVs.
“However, we confirm that this (project) is not part of the BDM programme and that the National Treasury was not represented at the September 20 meeting.”
When asked about the number of TVs that were distributed thus far and if some were gathering dust at the Post Office, Treasury directed Independent Media to Usaasa, the Post Office and the DCDT.
Mish Molakeng, the minister’s spokesperson, would not comment saying: “Please note, Usaasa is the implementing agency of the BDM and I have referred the questions to them.”
The Post Office claimed that they were not part of the September 20 meeting and had not stored any TV sets for the programme.
Sentech said they were not part of the Usaasa Grade 12 project, but have recently taken over the project management of the distribution of the DTT settop boxes for Usaasa.
After several emails and calls, over a period of seven days and promises to comment, Usaasa had not done so by the time of publication
Independent Media Investigations Unit