Oupa Magashula goes hi-tech

2014-05-11 15:00

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Former Sars boss makes a comeback as CEO of Mint Electronics, the firm about to launch SA’s first home-grown smartphone. But there’s a slight glitch...

Former SA Revenue Service (Sars) commissioner Oupa Magashula is back after a short stint away from the public eye after a jobs-for-pals scandal, which compelled him to quit his job at the revenue collector.

His new post, as chief executive of Mint Electronics, will see him launch South Africa’s first 100% home-grown smartphone.

Mint, a purpose-built vehicle of mining magnate Tim Tebeila’s Sekoko Holdings, bought 75% of CZ Electronics – a component factory for hire to various industries such as telecoms, defence and vehicle tracking – for an undisclosed amount. Tebeila said the company would be renamed Mint Electronics.

The move would serve to diversify Sekoko’s portfolio, heavily exposed to the mining industry through Sekoko Resources, which has The Waterberg Coal Company, based near Lephalale, Limpopo, as its flagship project.

Magashula, who has already made himself at home in a corner office at CZ Electronics’ Boksburg factory, said he got the job through sheer serendipity.

After quitting Sars, he said, he spent a number of months fundraising for the ANC in the Free State. While busy with this, he met Tebeila, who said he had been looking for Magashula’s phone number.

“I said: ‘I am no longer the Sars commissioner, why are you looking for my number?’ And he said: ‘I wanted to offer you a job.’”

He is a good fit. His CV includes a number of years spent at Telkom, as well as in different roles in the manufacturing sector. He has also worked as an organiser for the SA Chemical Workers’ Union.

He’s at ease on a tour of the factory, familiar with the dizzying array of electronic circuit boards and products making their rounds.

“When you come from a factory [background] like me, you want to touch something,” he said, grabbing one of Mint’s smartphones – which are not yet available to the public.

Mint is on track to launch the country’s first home-grown smartphones and tablets in the second half of this year, but there’s a problem.

CZ Electronics – which has a yearly turnover of about R145.9?million, according to information it provided to Midest, a French industrial subcontracting trade show – had already agreed to sell more than half of its shares to telecoms and broadcasting infrastructure company Seemahale Telecoms.

Led by medical doctor-turned-entrepreneur Dr Thabo Lehlokoe, Seemahale said in October it had signed a deal with CZ Electronics to manufacture and assemble 12.7cm smartphones and 25.7cm tablets, powered by Google Android and priced at under R3?500.

It also agreed to buy 51% of CZ Electronics, with certain conditions.

Seemahale is now taking legal advice, according to technology news website TechCentral. Lehlokoe reportedly only learnt of CZ Electronics’ deal with Mint when both parties announced the deal last week.

Approached for comment, Lehlokoe said: “I am unable to discuss the matter further at the moment, except to say that what you have read is true.”

But CZ Electronics operations boss Rob Bruggeman said Seemahale had until the end of March to meet the conditions precedent to the buyout being concluded.

Two of these were that Seemahale had to pony up working capital (“In order to manufacture smartphones, we need at least R100?million,” Bruggeman said) and provide proof it could bring in new business.

Bruggeman said these had not been met by the deadline, so the agreement had expired and CZ had sought another partner.

“Mint is using the different structures they have to raise capital,” he said.

“We are ready to defend our position [in court] and believe that we haven’t breached any contract.”

Entry-level Mint M smartphones will match Samsung

Mint Electronics will launch two Mint M smartphones: a small, entry-level version similar in size to the Samsung Galaxy Pocket priced at around R600; and a larger smartphone similar to the BlackBerry Z30, priced at around R1?500.

City Press saw a demonstration of the smaller smartphone, which has dual SIM functionality that can be tweaked for certain functions like receiving calls on one SIM and surfing the net on the other.

The Mint T tablet is roughly the size of the latest iPad, but with a larger display, and will be priced at around R2?000. It has a Qualcomm processor like the Samsung Galaxy, but an improved version which is faster and allows for more features, and the use of a top-end camera.

Jan Schwartz, Mint’s new business development director, said specifications were upgraded in line with new developments regularly, ensuring the devices will be able to compete on launch.

Mint was also looking into the possibility of having mobile TV technology built into the devices.

City Press bumped into MobileTV founder Mothobi Mutloatse at the Mint factory fresh after signing a nondisclosure agreement with Mint.

All the devices will run on Google’s Android operating system and will be designed and manufactured in South Africa, a first in Africa.

Currently, the Way-C tablets and

the Elikia smartphones designed by

Congo-Brazzaville’s VMK hold the bragging rights as an African first, but both are assembled in Shenzen, north of Hong Kong.

A recent visit to Chinese electronics factories convinced Mint its Boksburg factory could compete with them, said Schwartz.

“We can actually do it with the current process,” he said.

Because of their high value, a separate, highly secure, area within which to manufacture the devices is currently being set up in the factory.

It will create about a 100 jobs, which Magashula says will be filled mostly by black women.

To make it accessible to people in rural areas, a solar charger can be bought with the Mint smart devices. It has a belt clip, meaning consumers could wear it and charge on the go.

Apart from the smartphones and tablets, Mint is also looking into manufacturing smart TVs, which will carry the Mint brand. It currently manufactures components for other TV sets.

Tebeila said: “Next year, instead of making these TVs for other people, we’ll manufacture our own. We will do the whole product from beginning to end. Anything to do with smart whatever, we’re doing it here.”

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