Numerous hospitals, clinics, police stations, and exam centres in Mpumalanga are experiencing a telecommunications blackout amidst a tender battle in the province.
At the centre of this blackout is a five-year telecommunication tender worth R265.3 million that was awarded to ABT Telecoms last year.
The previous provider, Kwa-Mahlaba Connect’s contract had expired in October, but the company continued to provide services to the province until the end of November.
Kwa-Mahlaba Connect executive director Muzi Cindi said they agreed to continue to provide services after a request from the Mpumalanga Department of Public Works on 2 November.
After Kwa-Mahlaba Connect was informed they would not be paid for providing services beyond their contract period, they switched off services on 2 December 2020.
Since then, 76 government sites in Mpumalanga have been left without telecommunications services, including hospitals and police stations.
A City Press report laid the blame for the blackout at the feet of ABT Telecoms, which it said was paid for services which it did not deliver.
ABT Telecoms MD Thula Nkumane, however, dismissed this allegation and said it is, in fact, Kwa-Mahlaba Connect which is responsible.
According to Nkumane, Kwa-Mahlaba Connect refused to hand over the government’s telephone numbers to facilitate a seamless continuation of services.
“The government and ABT Telecoms instituted legal proceedings against Kwa-Mahlaba Connect to force it to hand over these telephone numbers to enable ABT to provide telecommunications services,” Nkumane said.
“By withholding the numbers, Kwa-Mahlaba Connect deprived over 15,000 civil servants in Mpumalanga access to telecommunications services.”
“The impact of their unfortunate actions had a spill-over effect to millions of Mpumalanga residents who could not access critical public sector and emergency services.”
Cindi hit back, saying the Department of Public Works unsuccessfully lodged an application to have numbers ported to ABT Telecoms.
“The judge dismissed the case after ABT Telecoms indicated that they did not want numbers ported to them,” he said.
“We also made a case to the judge that we cannot port numbers to an entity that does not possess ICASA licenses.”
Nkumane said following Kwa-Mahlaba Connect’s refusal to hand over the number to them, they purchased a tranche of 087 numbers to provide telecommunications services.
“It was unfortunate that the provincial government was not allowed by regulations from advertising this range of numbers,” he said.
Questions raised about ABT Telecoms’ infrastructure
Questions have been raised about ABT Telecoms’ infrastructure and its ability to provide the services for which it won the tender.
Nkumane dismissed these concerns, saying they display a poor understanding of the telecommunications industry and how it works.
“ABT Telecoms has built telecoms infrastructure for Mpumalanga without a glitch,” he said.
“Over and above this contract, ABT has built telecommunications infrastructure in the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal,” he said.
Nkumane added that ABT Telecoms has built a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network that connects government buildings in Mpumalanga.
“This MPLS network connects to the LAN that was re-engineered in less than three months and has enabled more than 7,000 civil servants to make voice calls through the 087 number.”
The ABT Telecoms MD also dismissed speculation that they were disqualified by MTN due to lack of affordability as claimed in the City Press article.
He said ABT Telecoms has three standing agreements with MTN – a reseller agreement, an on-biller agreement, and a teaming agreement specific to the Mpumalanga Provincial Government.
Cindi, however, maintained ABT Telecoms has been untruthful from the beginning of the process.
“Their relationship with MTN, whom they depended on for infrastructure, collapsed. As things stand, they do not have the capacity to pull through this massive rollout to all 76 sites within the Mpumalanga Province,” he said.
He added that there is no MPLS network currently operating in Mpumalanga, as claimed by ABT Telecoms.
Dispute over payments
Another disputed issue relates to R13 million which the City Press reported was paid to ABT Telecoms without any services rendered.
Nkumane disputed this claim, saying The Mpumalanga provincial government has to date not paid ABT Telecoms a single cent.
Cindi, in turn, said ABT Telecoms was indeed paid R3.9 million on 24 December 2020 as reported. He provided a payment stub to substantiate his claim.
He also provided invoices from ABT Telecoms to the Department of Public Works to the total of R8.9 million.
“The invoices are dated 26 November while Kwa-Mahlaba Connect was on site delivering the services that ABT Telecoms failed to deliver because they lacked infrastructure that the depended on MTN to deliver,” said Cindi.
It is not clear whether these invoices have been paid.
Full statements by ABT Telecoms and Kwa-Mahlaba Connect
The full statements by ABT Telecoms MD Thula Nkumane and Kwa-Mahlaba Connect executive director Muzi Cindi are provided below.
Additional documents provided by Cindi are also embedded below.
ABT Telecoms MD Thula Nkumane full statement
ABT Telecoms has noted with concern a litany of unsubstantiated stories and slanderous allegations published in the City Press since 22 December 2020 under the headline: “Premier’s office probes R265m telecoms tender.”
The allegations that were raised in these articles cannot go unchallenged. Especially in light of the fact that the matter is sub-judice. It is important to note that City Press articles has extracts out of an Affidavit solely by Kwa-Mahlaba Connect and has not taken extracts from the State’s affidavit, nor ABT Telecoms- thus making the story one-sided.
At the heart of the defaming allegations is that ABT Telecoms was awarded a five-year tender worth R265 million irregularly. However, the articles inexplicably omitted to explain the alleged irregularities around this appointment. Neither did they provide the readers with any tangible proof of actual or perceived irregularity. The City Press relied on the gossip and conjecture by its faceless source whose version is presented as established fact.
In the normal course of doing business, ABT Telecoms submits proposals to both the private and public sectors. ABT Telecoms conducts its business above board in the spirit of solving societal problems, driving innovation and achieving commercial success. The company does not have any politicians beholden to it; nor does it engage in business with any politically exposed people.
The company is made up of young, dynamic and highly qualified professionals who have built their business careers on their capabilities and expertise, and not on political patronage. These articles are offensive to these young, hard-working professionals.
The articles also blatantly blame ABT Telecoms as being responsible for lack of telecommunications services after being awarded the contract to provide these services to the Mpumalanga Provincial Government. The articles do not explain that Kwa-Mahlaba Connect, the former service provider, refused to do a handover to ABT. They refused to hand over the State’s telephone numbers in the range of 013, 766, 0000 and 9999 to ABT Telecoms to facilitate a seamless continuation of telecommunication services to Government offices and facilities
It is a matter of public record that Government and ABT Telecoms instituted legal proceedings against Kwa-Mahlaba Connect to force the latter to hand over Governments telephone numbers to enable ABT to provide telecommunications services. Kwa-Mahlaba Connect managed the numbers, which have been gazetted to the provincial government by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), through a third-party reseller.
By withholding the numbers and refusing to hand over fully to ABT Telecoms, Kwa-Mahlaba Connect deprived over 15 000 civil servants in Mpumalanga access to telecommunications services. The impact of their unfortunate actions had a spillover effect to millions of Mpumalanga residents who could not access critical public sector and emergency services.
In a bid to speed up services delivery in the face of shameless and blatant sabotage by Kwa-Mahlaba Connect, ABT Telecoms purchased a tranche of 087 numbers to provide telecommunications services to civil servants while the porting of the numbers was still a subject of a court process. This decision to purchase the 087 range of numbers was indicative of ABT’s commitment to ensure business continuity. It was unfortunate that the provincial government was not allowed by regulations from advertising this range of numbers.
The court has since ruled in favour of Government and ABT Telecoms and instructed Kwa-Mahlaba Connect to cede the numbers to ABT Telecoms. In a bizarre twist of events, it has turned out that Kwa-Mahlaba Connect, which has served as a telecommunications service provider to the province for the last 18 years, is unable to carry out the court order because it does not have the ICASA license required to port the numbers to ABT Telecoms.
The articles in question further claim that ABT Telecoms lacks the capacity and infrastructure to provide telecommunications to the provincial government. The articles display a poor understanding of the telecommunications industry and how it works. ABT Telecoms has built telecoms infrastructure for Mpumalanga without a glitch. Over and above this contract, ABT has built telecommunications infrastructure in the Free State and KZN- thus rendering the argument around capacity nonsensical.
ABT Telecoms has also built a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network that connects government buildings in Mpumalanga. This MPLS network connects to the LAN that was re-engineered in less than three months and has enabled more than 7 000 civil servants to make voice calls through the 087 number.
There is no merit to the allegation that ABT Telecoms was disqualified by MTN due to lack of affordability as claimed in the article. In light of respecting confidentiality between MTN and ABT, these agreements have not been made public as per the laborious request our colleagues Kwa-Mahlaba. ABT Telecoms has three standing agreements with MTN, namely a reseller agreement, an on-biller agreement and a teaming agreement specific to the Mpumalanga Provincial Government. This allegation is mischievous, libellous and devoid of truth.
Another defamatory allegation that is made in the articles is that ABT Telecoms was paid R8 million for “doing nothing”. The Mpumalanga Provincial Government has to date not paid ABT Telecoms one cent. As outlined above, ABT Telecoms built a robust MPLS network in three months and re-engineered the LAN in the Provincial and regional offices and has calls breaking out on the 087-number range despite being forestalled from delivering on its contract by the previous service provider. ABT has incurred huge legal costs all in the spirit of compelling the previous contractor to hand over to the awarded supplier as is generally expected.
ABT Telecoms, a unified communications SMME company, believes that our key differentiator is offering tailored solutions that address the needs of our clients and building and maintaining robust telecommunications infrastructure for our clients to layer their services. For an SMME company, we hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct and subscribe to strict business principles and most importantly shun corruption with all disdain and contempt that it deserves as it hurts the most vulnerable in the society. We are in full support of the investigation by the Office of the Premier as we believe that its outcome will further vindicate us, just as the High court has, and lay bare the malicious intentions to ruin ABT’s reputation.
MD: ABT TELECOMS
Kwa-Mahlaba Connect executive director Muzi Cindi statement
As the Executive Director of Kwa-Mahlaba Connect CC, I hereby respond to today’s misleading article where ABT Telecom’s Thula Nkumane misinformed MyBroadband on very pertinent issues regarding The Department of Public Works and Kwa-Mahlaba Connect CC:
- I have attached Judge B Mashile’s judgment that was delivered on 28 December 2020. The Department of Public Works had lodged an application to have numbers ported to ABT Telecoms. The Judge dismissed the case after ABT Telecoms indicated that they did not want numbers ported to them (see attached letter). We also made a case to the Judge that we cannot port numbers to an entity that does not possess ICASA licenses. Mr. Thula Nkumane should send you the judgment where the Judge “instructed Kwa-Mahlaba Connect to cede numbers to ABT Telecoms”, as they claim. Why didn’t they go back to the High Court if the deem us to be in contempt?
- I have also attached the payment stub confirming the payment of R 3,9 Million paid to ABT Telecoms on 24 December 2020. I have also attached invoices that total R 8,9 Million for November and December. The invoices are dated 26 November while Kwa-Mahlaba Connect was on site delivering the services that ABT Telecoms failed to deliver because they lacked infrastructure that the depended on MTN to deliver.
- ABT Telecoms has been untruthful from the beginning of the process. Their relationship with MTN, whom they depended on for infrastructure, collapsed. As things stand, they do not have the capacity to pull through this massive rollout to all 76 sites within the Mpumalanga Province. I have attached a letter our Lawyers sent to the previous HOD, Ms. Sindi Xulu, on 26 November 2019. Note that this was before the tender was even advertised on the January 2020 bulletin. In this letter we complained about the MTN Mast that was already being installed for ABT Telecoms, even before the tender was advertised. These are the issues that are the subject of our High Court Review Application on 11 February 2021.
- There is still no Telecommunication services for the plus 15 000 ports within the Mpumalanga VOIP Network. It it not true that ABT Telecoms provided service to 7000 people. They only gave IP desk phones to a few connected people at Riverside Government complex. There is no MPLS network currently operating in Mpumalanga. All 76 sites are still without Telecommunications, including Covid-19 hospitals, clinics, police stations and exam centers.
- The Department of Public Works owes Kwa-Mahlaba Connect CC a total of R 5 483 534.69. Mr. Charles Morolo requested us on 02 November 2020 to help out after ABT failed to deliver on their promise. We switched off services on 02 December after officials said we won’t be paid because we didn’t have a contract. This is the reason we gave the Judge on why there were currently no services. We informed the DG also that we are willing to switch on again as soon as we get the assurance that we will be paid.
Unless the Department of Public Works, Roads and Transport accedes to our temporary offer to give telecommunications services until our High Court date on 11 February 2021, the stalemate in Mpumalanga will continue. We have informed the acting HOD, the Director General and the Premier that it will take us less than 30 minutes to connect the Province again since we have not decommissioned our infrastructure. ABT Telecoms still has to build its infrastructure to connect the 76 sites.