Johannesburg – Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is accused of appointing Basil Ford as the new executive caretaker for the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA (Usaasa) without doing a proper background check on him.
Independent Media’s special investigation unit interviewed an employee-turned whistle-blower at Usaasa who claimed Ford was fired from his previous job and had misrepresented his way into being appointed at the state-owned company.
He claimed that he had resigned from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) in 2017. According to the “termination of employment and settlement agreement” documents between IDC and Ford, which Independent Media has seen, Ford’s employment was terminated and he had to step down on February 16, 2017.
The whistle-blower, who cannot be identified, believes that Ford was forced to step down to avoid causing IDC further damage in the way he managed it.
“Ford was fired from his previous job at the IDC and then appointed by Ndabeni-Abrahams this year. How can the minister appoint him with no background check being done on him? They should have called previous companies doing a reference check with each. This is not how things work,” he said.
IDC confirmed that there was no contact made by Usaasa for reference on Ford, who resigned from their company three years ago.
When asked why Ford was fired from the IDC, pointing out the termination papers, Tshepo Ramodibe, head of corporate affairs at IDC, said the IDC policy precludes them from discussing employer and employee relationships.
Ramodibe refused to comment on the relationship between the IDC and the minister during Ford’s time of employment.
“IDC adheres strictly to laws of confidentiality and legal disclosure. As a standard practice, we do not report on routine meetings held with current clients, potential clients, or any other stakeholders,” Ramodibe said.
Ford worked for almost 20 years at IDC where he had been investing in various companies in the media and broadcasting sector.
The minister had placed Usaasa under administration and appointed Ford as the new administrator from January 2020 where he was given the dual role of the executive caretaker and the board (a one-man board).
“Ford is currently abusing his powers through chairing the executive committee alone and by making recommendations to the board (to himself) for approval,” explained the source.
These are the same dual roles that the Western Cape High Court issued against the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) on August 25, 2020, when the court ruled that Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s appointment of a sole administrator for Prasa was unlawful and that he had failed to appoint a proper governance board for the agency.
“Even after this court judgment, which I am sure Ndabeni-Abrahams was aware of, she chose to keep Ford in his dual roles and failed to follow the admission of guilt by Mbalula, who agreed with the courts outcome and committed himself to remedy the situation.
“This is the miscarriage of good governance. Ford was also appointed to the audit committee which plays the oversight role over the board and according to the King IV report, the chairperson of the board cannot attend the audit.
“The company’s board committee and audit committee meeting is attended by the chief executive alone. This destroys the independence of the Usaasa audit committee and therefore it does not meet the requirements of being an independent oversight over the board. The audit committee can as well be part of management,” he explained.
The source, who has been working at Usaasa for several years and before Ford was even appointed, said current employees fear Ford’s leadership and are too scared to complain.
“Ford, due to his absolute powers, can corrupt anybody. He is feared by his management to the extent that he forces them to make illegal decisions against their will and professional judgement. If they fail to bind the line, he threatens to fire them.
“All the work and projects of Usaasa on the Annual Performance Plans (APP) are not prioritised anymore, the only project Ford is focusing on is the IDTV project, which is no longer relevant or in fact it has never been relevant to start with.
He explained that Ford also promotes Usaasa staff on posts that do not exist on the structure and not budgeted for and that he recently promoted his personal assistant to the senior manager’s position and this position was not advertised.
He requested that Ndabeni-Abrahams, just like Mbalula, remedy the governance breakdown by removing Ford as the executive caretaker and from the board.
“She (minister) must appoint a fully-fledged board with various board committees, without Ford, because he was clearly appointed to collapse Usaasa.
“He has made illegal decisions of appointing staff on positions which are not on the structure and not budgeted for, and the audit committee has also been collapsed by his dual role.
“The legal department of Usaasa is no longer functional, all legal decisions, including suspending staff, are handled by the company secretary, who is also acting executive manager in the corporate services department,” he said.
When Usaasa was asked if a background check was done on Ford and if it was in the best interest to employ someone who was previously fired, Keitumetse Hlahatsi, Usaasa’s media liaison, did not respond to the question and only said “Ford had resigned, which was accepted by his former employer”.
She said Usaasa is not aware of employees’ fears of Ford, and to date no staff members have brought the allegation to the attention of anyone in the agency.
She added that the relationship between the minister and Ford is that of an employer and employee type but did not comment on Ford’s relationship with the minister’s husband.
Ndabeni-Abrahams’ spokesperson, Mish Molakeng, said: “Ford was appointed by the department to serve as the executive caretaker of Usaasa in accordance with all due processes of the department and with the concurrence of the Cabinet.
“Ford was appointed to this role 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.”
The department did not confirm if they had contacted IDC for a background check on Ford.
Special Investigation Unit