Off The Record – My Amazing MTN Story – Episode 3

This is Episode 3. If you wish to read from the beginning, the posts are placed in reverse order here.

Written by Niki Moore, edited by Gudrun Kaiser… In which the plot thickens to a pouring consistency, while the word ‘corruption’ pops its head out of its burrow.

This is the ‘camera pole’, built ‘by the municipality’ in order to house ‘CCTV cameras’.

As an investigative journalist, one very quickly realises that the market in secrets is overtraded, and it’s not difficult to find someone – wrapped in a metaphorical mac, speaking out of the side of their mouth – to give you the information you need. And the first rule of investigation is: Follow the money… find the motive.

So I phoned a friend of mine who works for Bloomberg News, and who knows things about the arcane world of telecoms that they don’t even know themselves.

“Is there any reason,” I began after the usual pleasantries, “why a company like MTN would want to put up a lot of cell masts in a hurry?”

“Well, yes.” she replied. “Vodacom and MTN are the two biggest cell companies in South Africa, but MTN is falling behind in the race with Vodacom for market share. MTN hasn’t invested in infrastructure for a long time, and now they’re trying to catch up. They need to improve their coverage drastically in a very short time.”

Those were not her exact words, mind you, but that was the gist. And it provided some answers. Installing cellular infrastructure legally is a long process: it would be quite tempting to find a shortcut. What I had discovered about MTN in my short acquaintance with them, was that here was a company that was not allergic to taking shortcuts. And the Ethekwini Metropolitan Municipality is to corruption what a fish is to water. All in all, putting MTN and the Metro together would be like introducing the monkey to the banana plantation.

Just in case any libel lawyers are licking their chops while reading this, I refer to my sources. Just type ‘MTN court cases’ into a search engine, followed by the names of any country where MTN does business. There is a list.

For instance, MTN’s shenanigans in Nigeria have a whole Wikipedia page to themselves, along with Turkey. Then there’s Cameroon , Uganda, Ghana and the whole bunfight with the USA

And just in case you think I’m the first one to comment, MTN’s flexible approach to principles has been noticed by others: some samples here and here.

After chatting to Bloomberg I went to the other end of the scale: community papers – always a good source of local news. I was quite surprised to find that this MTN saga in Durban had been simmering gently for quite some time: .

A Bluff newspaper, the Southlands Sun, announced in a rather ‘Gotcha!’ fashion that the mystery of the large concrete poles had been solved – they were indeed cell masts.

City spokesperson, Thozi Mthethwa, had been assuring residents that the structures were camera poles for CCTV cameras, and that the municipality had installed them for that very purpose. It was only afterwards that MTN had happened serendipitously to notice these wonderfully versatile poles dotted around Durban, and that someone at the company then had the bright idea to approach the Disaster Management Unit to ask if they could possibly, don’tcha’ know, use these existing poles for their own antennae? They would pay rent an’ all, and everyone would win.

After this explanation, many Durbanites went, “Oh, that’s all right then,” and carried on with their day. But some brighter citizens had been pointing out that these poles had looked suspiciously like cell masts from the very start, and that this whole story was – not to put too fine a point on it – a pack of lies. Apart from the fact that even if some of it were true, an antenna attached to existing property also needed to go through a process – which hadn’t happened. People were as frustrated as a chameleon in a box of Smarties.

As part of my own investigation, I went down to our very own Eye of Sauron to have a closer look.

It was a vast concrete pole, with nary a sign of a camera. Just a trilogy of cell antennae and a few microwave dishes on top.

Attached to the mast was a metal badge, naming Tellumat as the contractor who had put up the tower, and the client was MTN.

So, I phoned Tellumat and spoke to Shaun.

I have always wondered, afterwards, what happened to Shaun. It is quite possible that he is being kept in a dungeon somewhere, with snakes and scorpions for company, and fed through a keyhole. Because what he told me was definitely not the official version.

“No, we don’t build camera poles, and most certainly not for any municipality,” he replied cheerfully and unwarily in response to my question. “We are a contractor for MTN, and we build MTN cell masts. The ones you are talking about are called ‘base stations’. We were given the contract to put up the Durban base stations for MTN.”

“So these are not, and never have been, camera poles?” I asked as ingenuously as I dared.

“I wouldn’t know what a camera pole was if it nested in my sock drawer,” he replied, or words to that effect.

“And how,” I asked, fascinated, ‘did you manage to build all these cell masts without any permissions?”

There was a short silence. At last it was filtering into Shaun’s mind that perhaps my questions were not as innocent as he had first thought.

“We don’t deal with things like that,” he said, a little more slowly, “MTN is responsible for getting those things. And, er, we were told that the municipality had sorted all of that out.”

“So you had plans that were approved, and all the regulations in place?” I asked sweetly.

By now the fizz had gone out of Shaun’s voice. He had suddenly looked up from his canoe to see the water disappearing over the edge of the waterfall. He needed to paddle for shore.

“Um, you have to speak to my boss, Mr Naicker,” he said hurriedly. “Let me put you through.”

I was put on hold for a while, perhaps while Shaun was pointing out the rocks in the rapids to his boss, because when I got to speak to Mr Naicker he was as garrulous as a clam.

All I managed to get out of him was that Tellumat only did what it was told, all regulations were the responsibility of the client, and that I should speak to Gerard Naidoo, property manager for MTN. Mr Naicker could not disconnect the call fast enough.

So I punched in the numbers for Gerard Naidoo.

He answered my questions enthusiastically. “Oh, yes,” he said. “We have an infrastructure-sharing agreement with the municipality where we put our cell antennae on municipal property. The municipality is putting up CCTV camera poles, and we have made an arrangement that we attach our antennae afterwards. It is working really well, and we are busy with hundreds of installations.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said, equally enthusiastically. “But these towers were built for you. They don’t have cameras, they only have your antennae?”

“Yes,” he replied, with a rise in tone. “Er, where the Disaster Management Unit did not have camera-poles put up, we built them and we are gifting them over to the city to put their cameras on later. That’s all part of our infrastructure-sharing arrangement.”

“Wow,” I enthused. “That is extraordinarily generous of you. And when exactly was this infrastructure-sharing arrangement signed?”

There was a dead silence. The temperature dropped noticeably.

“Um …” he replied eventually, on a slightly higher note. “There isn’t really a signed agreement, as such …. ”

“You mean,” I replied with a touch of manufactured incredulity, “You have undertaken a multi-million rand infrastructure project in Durban without any formal agreements in place?”

The dead silence now had a touch of desperation about it.

“Actually … “ he said with a slight squeak, “We have an arrangement with the Disaster Management Unit … ”

“Oh,” I said. “So you have signed an agreement with them?”

The voice now was like a chicken caught in a vice.

“Not exactly signed an agreement …”

I waited.

“I think,” he said in a rush, giving the distinct impression that he was running his finger around his collar, “for the details you must talk to Vincent Ngubane. He is the Head of the Disaster Management Unit. He is our contact in Durban. He can tell you more.”

He put the phone down after that – very gently, I noticed…. perhaps in case it woke up and attacked him again.

And so I was introduced, for the first time, to the name of Vincent Ngubane. This is a name that is going to play quite a significant role in this story. And for the first time, I had come across a phenomenon that I would later call ‘The Durban Metro Mafia’.


There will be a new episode of my exciting adventures every week. If you would like it sent directly to your inbox, please click here. You can send a blank e-mail to sign up to the mailing list. mymtnstory@gmail.com

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this series of articles are purely those of the writer, they are not endorsed by Safrea or any of its members.

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3 Responses

  1. This is the first photograph of a Durban Camera Pole that I have seen. Whilst I am a Durban boy I will say what we would have said in the town of my birth.
    “Dis ‘n kamera paal? My voet in ‘n visblik”

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