Communications minister accused of meddling unlawfully in Icasa

Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams
Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams

Regulator Icasa threatens communications minister with court on Monday if she doesn’t pay up, as SABC also waits for funds

A war has broken out between the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) and Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who is being accused of meddling in the independent authority's work and withholding their funding by refusing to approve its annual perfomance plan (APP).

City Press has obtained a copy of an explosive letter Icasa sent to the minister on Friday, threatening court action if her department did not pay the first of four tranches of its R450 million annual budget by 11am tomorrow.

The regulator will not be able to pay rent, salaries or service providers next month unless they make changes to their APP which the minister demanded.

But as Icasa is a chapter 9 institution, the law says she is not allowed to interfere with the plan.

Icasa neither confirms nor denies sending the letter, one of several obtained by City Press.

Icasa spokesperson Paseka Maleka said: “The authority strongly condemns the leakage of its correspondences, and we will not legitimise such with a comment. Such conduct will not deter us from continuous engagements with the ministry on any issue that concerns the authority and the minister.”

On Friday, City Press sent questions to Ndabeni-Abrahams’ spokesperson Nthabeleng Mokitimi-Dlamini, who is travelling abroad with the minister, but she had not responded by the time of going to print.

Ndabeni-Abraham’s concerns apparently revolve around cellphone network issues.

Read: Ndabeni-Abrahams'not so free media

In an email dated April 9, a staff member at the communications department writes: “Please note that the minister has not approved the APP. She has instructed that Icasa remove all references to the 5G in the document as it has not been approved and we are still on 4G ... As you are aware, we cannot transfer funds if the APP is not approved.”

Impeccable sources in the communications sector believe Ndabeni-Abrahams wishes to save the announcement of both 5G cellular networks in the local market and the sale of new spectrum for mobile operations for her own election promises.

Icasa’s acting chairperson Keabetswe Modimoeng then fired off a letter to the minister on April 17, asking for a formal request regarding the changes to the APP.

On Wednesday, Ndabeni-Abrahams responded to Modimoeng, dismissing the the communication about 5G as it had not come directly from her office.

She then, however, addresses concerns about the Icasa APP’s proposed handling of the international mobile telecommunications spectrum licensing process, wanting it sped up in accordance with the urgency expressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his state of the nation address.

Icasa is tasked with clearing up spectrum to sell to cellular network operators, with bidding believed to start at R3 billion, funds which will pad state coffers.

Ndabeni-Abrahams then mentions various other inaccuracies in the APP and writes: “I am looking forward to approving the authority’s APP 2019/2020 once these matters have been addressed.”

This led to Friday’s letter in which Modimoeng lays down the laws protecting Icasa, citing the Constitution’s protection of chapter 9 institutions and the Icasa Act of 2000.

He stressed that Treasury has already released Icasa’s latest budget allocation for the financial year beginning April 1.

He writes that Icasa believes the minister’s department “is not empowered in law to withhold quarterly tranches” and that “it is not within the minister’s powers to approve the APP”.

He gives Ndabeni-Abrahams an ultimatum to pay up by 11am tomorrow or Icasa will approach the high court to compel her department to do so.

The feud over Ndabeni-Abrahams’ perceived meddling with Icasa is outlined in other recent correspondence obtained by City Press.

On April 2, Modimoeng writes a letter to her titled Leaking of council deliberations without authorisation, in which he unpacks how she called an Icasa councillor to a meeting in Pretoria, disrupting an Icasa meeting which was then inquorate without the councillor.

The regulator will not be able to pay rent, salaries or service providers next month unless they make changes to their APP which the minister demanded. But as Icasa is a chapter 9 institution, the law says she is not allowed to interfere with the plan.

In meeting with the councillor, whom the minister names in a reply on April 4 as Nomonde Gongxeka-Seopa, Icasa says Ndabeni-Abrahams discussed confidential Icasa matters with her.

City Press understands Ndabeni-Abrahams raised issues from a closed Icasa WhatsApp group about the freeing up of spectrum to be auctioned.

Ndabeni-Abrahams is accused of having an informer on council, who is leaking sensitive information to her.

Modimoeng asks the minister to name the councillor who shared confidential information and threatens a forensic investigation into the matter.

Ndabeni-Abrahams responds two days later with a letter confirming she met the councillor “in relation to information that was circulated on a social media platform”.

She further states she is surprised this disrupted an Icasa council meeting and says she “bears no knowledge of matters discussed during the council meeting referred to by Modimoeng”.

She agrees that confidentiality must be maintained and is “deeply concerned” about the alleged leak.

However, the SABC is also on tenterhooks, sources there told City Press they believe Ndabeni-Abrahams is using funding to try to control independent state communications bodies.

On March 12, Ndabeni-Abrahams announced that the financially decimated public broadcaster would receive desperately needed interim funding relief, especially with the upcoming elections.

But these funds have not materialised a month and a half later.

SABC spokesperson Vuyo Mthembu told City Press: “The SABC can confirm that it has been working closely with the department of communications and National Treasury on the recapitalisation of the organisation. The requested interim funding will be used for outstanding payments to service providers, investment in local content and to procure and upgrade key technology infrastructure.”

Civil society organisations the SOS Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa said: “We remain deeply concerned that the SABC is being kept in crisis during this critical election period. It appears, and it seems the only fair conclusion, that the reason for the delay and withholding the guarantee is to leverage the power they have left to try to get the SABC to toe the line.”


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