This is Episode 7. 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 this episode we meet (or rather, we don’t meet) MTN CEO Rob Shuter, who is paid R6 MILLION A MONTH to ignore corruption in his company.
During August 2017 we hoiked a lawyer out of retirement and persuaded him to write a letter to the Ethekwini Metro Legal Department, asking exactly where this same Legal Department stood in terms of a private company that was breaking city laws.
Legal head S’bu Shezi wrote us a lovely response, telling us that they ‘took the matter seriously’ – of course – but in this case, they had actually done something. They had notified MTN – on an official letterhead – that all development, building and activations of these cell masts should cease immediately until they had investigated this matter thoroughly.
Just in case the letter ‘got lost in the post’, we served copies of this missive on MTN’s Head Office, MTN’s Durban Office, various MTN project managers, and we even drove around Durban showing it to the contractors on the various MTN sites.
There was a conspicuous lack of alarm and despondency from MTN. We had now realised that making them pay attention would be like trying to hold back a glacier. It really looked as if we had run out of road.
When your ordinary everyday person is confronted with glow-in-the-dark wrongdoing, and every avenue of complaint gets that little GPS voice whining ‘Do a U-turn, do a U-turn’ … that is when the sensible person scratches a hollow in the litterbox, deposits the problem, covers it neatly with sand, and gets on with their lives.
And so, being the sensible person that I am, I went out to jump around in the storm with a lightning rod on my head.
I called a community meeting.
I sent a special invitation to the city manager’s office, along with a gilt-edged invitation to the MTN CEO, Rob Shuter – this man who earns R6 million a month. In my invitations, which ploughed furrows in the ground in their grovelling obsequiousness, I stressed that several hundred residents of Durban were distressed and puzzled by all the anomalies and secrecy around this process, and here was a civilised and formal occasion for the city and the company to come along and state their case.
The city responded, saying that they would send two delegates – S’bu Shezi and Musa Mbhele, Heads of two Departments.
However, the letter from MTN said that the matter was very complex and under investigation, and MTN did not think that it would be a good idea for Rob Shuter to attend and ‘add to the confusion’. This made us think that Rob Shuter, despite his R6 million-a-month salary, must be an extremely simple person if he cannot explain how his own company works.
But this was also the first time I met up, so to speak, with MTN Head of Corporate Affairs, Jacqui O’Sullivan. I am sure that Jacqui O’Sullivan is a very nice person. You have to be a very nice person in order to be a highly-paid corporate whitewasher for a corruption-soaked company such as MTN – although it doesn’t hurt when you have oodles of money to dish out fancy gadgets to tech writers to keep them uncritically enslaved (I’m looking at you, TechCentral, MyBroadband, BusinessTech and Stuff Magazine).
The letter from Jacqui O’Sullivan was a fine example of absolute meaningless nonsense with an air of credible authority. She – like everyone else – was taking this really seriously. In fact, she had even been investigating the issue. And her conclusion – wait for it – was that there had been a ‘misalignment of objectives’ between the city and themselves … And that for Rob Shuter of MTN to come along to address a community meeting to explain how this came about was pointless because they were ‘waiting for guidance’. Of course, MTN was ‘working with the city’ to ‘find a solution’. According to Jacqui, they had now suddenly (after two years of howling public outrage) realised that they were breaking the law, and were waiting for the city to ‘give them direction’ on how to fix it.
Jacqui must be a founder member of the Bell Pottinger ‘School of Credible-Sounding Obfuscation’, because this was such an amazingly blatant lie that it had us hopping up and down and blowing steam out of our ears. It really deserves an entire paragraph to itself.
So let’s do an action replay.
Putting up cell masts is a well-defined process. There are sets of laws that are subject to town planning regulations and national legislation. The process is as clear and unambiguous as feeding sponge cake to a donkey.
But despite these clear and unambiguous processes, and shoals of employees whose only job is to get this all right, MTN still managed to conclude that any large private company is entitled to drive around a city, look for some nice spots to do some building, and then send their contractors to ‘X marks the spot’ without proper documents, signed leases, or approved plans. And then steadfastly lie through two years of community protests, signed petitions, newspaper enquiries, direct correspondence and residents’ anger.
It was obvious that the city and MTN felt they could behave like a lawnmower after the grass has organised a worker’s union.
In the event, the community meeting was a damp squib. More than 150 angry residents turned up, but the city officials did not – with no apology or explanation.
There was only one option left – to take the city and MTN to court to get the required answers.
Perhaps at this point you would be asking yourself why I – as someone who started off simply as an investigative journalist and semi-interested bystander – would go to these lengths to expose what was really, at the end of the day, a small and relatively insignificant case of bribery and corruption.
To answer your question, in our next episode, we will take a stroll down Digression Boulevard so that I may tell you why this became so damned personal.
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. email@example.com
Or follow me on Facebook
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.