Off The Record – My Amazing MTN Story – Episode 4

This is Episode 4. If you wish to read from the beginning, the posts are placed in reverse order here.

Written by Niki Moore, edited by Gudrun Kaiser ….. The Ballad of the Brick Walls. Or …the Closed-Ranks Comedy or…..Tight-lipped Titans Clammed Up and Close

Seeing that Vincent Ngubane, Head of Disaster Management at the Ethekwini Municipality, was the point man in Durban, I gave him a ring. He answered promptly – it was almost as if he was expecting my call. I introduced myself, and explained the nature of my enquiry.

“Oh, the camera poles!” he said with the kind of hearty laugh that has spent a thousand years lying on a sandbank. “Oh, yes, the camera poles. Look, I am driving now. Ring me back in 20 minutes.”

This is an old trick when someone does not want to talk to you, but unfortunately, it is very effective.

Because I did phone back. Many times. I left messages on his phone, at his office, and with his colleagues. His PA confirmed he was not sick or on leave, he was working as usual. It was just that his work did not include giving me any answers on this ‘infrastructure arrangement’.

Next stop was Fawzia Peer, the deputy mayor, head of the Security Cluster and effectively Vincent Ngubane’s boss. She also answered promptly.

“Oh, yes,” she said when I had explained my mission. “Those are camera poles. The municipality has put them up for CCTV cameras.”

“Except they haven’t,” I replied, putting my finger on a major geopolitical flaw. “They are not camera poles and the municipality has not put them up. MTN put them up, they are MTN property, they are custom-built cell masts. And they have all been erected throughout the city without a scrap of documentation, consultation or compliance.”

There was a dead silence.

“That whole project is Vincent Ngubane’s responsibility,” she said eventually. “You should talk to him.”

“I have tried to speak to him, many times,” I said, getting to the nub of things once again. “He won’t talk to me.”

I explained further, and was greeted by another silence, which, if not quite dead, was mortally wounded.

“This is a serious issue,” she said at last. This was a phrase I was going to hear repeatedly over the next few months. “Send me an e-mail, and I will investigate.” That was another phrase I was going to hear repeatedly over the next few months. As well as the inevitable outcome: nothing.

I waited a decent interval for a response, tried a few more times to be in contact, and then went further up the ladder, to the City Manager’s office. Here I got another ‘This is serious, we will investigate’ letter to add to my growing pile, which was now leaning like the Tower of Pisa. However, in this case I tried a follow-up and this is where I encountered Princess, a sweet but dim young lady in the City Manager’s office.

“Hi there, I said breezily, “I am phoning about my mail. You said you were going to investigate.”

“Yes?” she said.

“Well, I wanted to know when I would get a response,” I said.

“That was your response,’ she said in a voice in which patience floated like ice-cubes.

OK. So ….. I knew that local government would be useless because, well, they are local government. So I decided to change tactics and go back to MTN.

In those early days I was still naive enough to think that MTN were the good guys – if they knew this was happening they would leap to attention, fire the bad apples, apologise to us all, and the ship would resume course. But even though I might be two sheep short of a sweater, it took only a few of the ‘This is serious, we will investigate’ messages from their CEO Godfrey Motsa, their PROs Bridget Bhengu and Mamello Raborifi, and from their PR agency Magna Carta, for it to filter through to me that I would not get anywhere here either.

So I approached our ward councillor, Mmabatho Tembe, another vocal critic of this project. She referred me to Shaun Ryley, a DA councillor who was a member of the Security Portfolio in the council. He would be my man on the doorstep, and he confirmed what all we residents had long suspected – even inside the council the whole project had been shrouded in secrecy from the start. All his official requests for clarity on this had been ignored.

It took six months, and a barrel-full of legal hoops to jump through, but he managed – eventually – to extract a copy of a lease agreement between MTN and Vincent Ngubane, Head of Disaster Management.

It was a bombshell. If ever there was a damning document, this was it.

First of all, it made a complete lie out of that ‘infrastructure-sharing arrangement’ piece of flannel. It was really just a boilerplate lease for anyone who wishes to use municipal land for private purposes. It had a number of standard provisions in line with town planning regulations.

However, the logic of using this lease to justify hundreds of cell masts across Durban was so twisted you could use it to open wine bottles. It was obvious the standard lease had been adjusted extensively to suit MTN’s expansion plans, to the extent that half of the lease contradicted the other half.

It had not been completed or signed. None of the conditions had been fulfilled. The plans had not been submitted for approval. The proposed sites were delinquent. It was so deficient in every aspect that the paper on which it was written seemed to want to shrivel up in embarrassment.

But – amazingly and in defiance of every law of logic or common sense but one – the masts were up and operating. And they were doing so without the merest hint of a CCTV camera.

This picture gives the lie to the paragraphs in the lease
These two paragraphs directly contradict further paragraphs in the lease.

Armed with this lease, I began to haunt the municipal offices.

On my first round of visits to ‘Ethekwini Towers’, people were cautiously welcoming and tentatively informative. The attitude was: ‘We have been told not to tell you anything. But we feel it is only fair that you get told what you are not being told.’

Head of Planning, Eric Parker, confirmed that MTN had never applied for permission to erect cell masts or any other structure on municipal land. It looked as if MTN had simply driven around Durban choosing nice places, stuck a flag in the ground, and then directed their contractors to start digging.

The Head of Electricity, Greg Evans, admitted he had just been instructed to connect the masts to the city electricity supply. One official, who has to remain nameless, confessed that she had begun asking questions about the anomalies, but had been instructed to ‘look the other way’. The building inspector had been instructed to ignore the lack of plans. The compliance officers had been told to take a hike. And the person issuing these instructions was always …Vincent Ngubane.

My second foray into Metro HQ was very different. I got the distinct impression that officials were getting stuck in the doorways in their hurry to leave the building when they heard I was in reception.

A typical visit would go like this:

“Hello, I have come to see … “ I would announce briskly.

The receptionist would give me a long agonised look, with a wisp of steam rising from her collar.

“So sorry, but he/she has just gone out, it was an emergency. Really, so sorry.”

“That’s fine,” I would say chirpily. “I’ll just wait for him/her to get back.”

And I would sit down (if there was a chair) or stroll around the waiting area.

So I would wait, while the receptionist would pretend to take important calls. After a while, a security guard would show up.

“I’m afraid you can’t wait here,” he would say with every evidence of genuine regret.

“Why?” I would ask.

This usually stumped him, but not for long.

“The person is gone for the day,” he would reply, “and you cannot stay here.”

I didn’t see why not, and I would say so, but to no avail. The security guard’s instruction obviously was to make sure I left the building so that the relevant official no longer had to skulk in their office. Even though I was prepared to wait until budged by continental drift, he would hover over me like a tax demand until I gave in and left.

It was beginning to look as if people would rather eat their own ears than disobey any instruction from Vincent Ngubane.

It was time to investigate this man.


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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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2 Responses

  1. I understand the anguish and frustration. I am living a similar experience with the DSD. It is impossible to budge stubborn idiots who lie, fail in their duties, do not give effect to undertakings, close ranks, hide behind silence and generally get paid handsomely for being useless, indeed destructive. Empathy I have for you. They don’t even have that for their shadows.

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