A number of 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 the 2nd of November, last year. He said they switched off their service on the 2nd of December after they informed they would not be paid for providing services beyond their contract period.
Since then, 76 government sites in Mpumalanga have been left without telecommunications services, including hospitals and police stations. A national newspaper 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.
However, the Managing Director of ABT Telecoms, Thula Nkumane 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. 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,” Nkumane said.
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. We also made a case to the judge that we cannot port numbers to an entity that does not possess ICASA licenses,” he said.
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. He said that it was unfortunate that the provincial government was not allowed by regulations from advertising this range of numbers,” he said.
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. Over and above this contract, ABT has built telecommunications infrastructure in the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. 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,” he said.
Nkumane also dismissed speculation that his company was disqualified by MTN due to lack of affordability as claimed in the national newspaper 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.
Cindi added that there is no MPLS network currently operating in Mpumalanga, as claimed by ABT Telecoms. Another disputed issue relates to R13 million which the publication 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 the 24th of 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.