An April Fool’s Telkom breakfast

Was it an April Fool’s Day joke?

Was Telkom’s chief executive Reuben September really going to sit down on April 1 with the media to have a frank and honest discussion?

This is the same Telkom making headlines in the past few months for all the wrong reasons: suspended senior executives, alleged tender irregularities, union dissatisfaction with the restructuring exercise and the millions of rands flushed down that drain that was called Telkom Media.

As I was driving to the Raddison Hotel in Sandton on Wednesday morning, I passed the posters for the April Fools’ stories: “Dalai Lama to open 2010”. Was a transparent Telkom just another joke?

It appears so because Telkom’s definition of transparency leaves a lot to be desired. Telkom even attempted to prevent a telecoms journalist from attending the breakfast briefing with its chief executive.

September and Telkom’s chief financial officer Peter Nelson chose to skip the headline-grabbing developments of the past and insisted that they were looking towards the future.

Looking back, the first sign that all was not well at Telkom was the suspension and then firing of chief operations officer Motlatsi Nzeku in February this year. Nzeku was accused by Telkom of being dismissive and counterproductive. The company alleged that his actions had been defamatory.

Nzeku has since claimed that he was fired over an internal audit he requested, which highlighted an irregularity in a tender that was awarded to Ericsson and Telsaf Data for microwave communications equipment.

Nzeku notified the Telkom board and accused September of going out of his way to protect Telkom’s group executive for national infrastructure provision Marius Mostert, who the internal audit had fingered.

Mostert has since been suspended and the losing bidder, Maredi Telecoms, lodged an appeal against the awarding of the tender.

Both September and Nelson refused to discuss these issues at the briefing. “These are internal matters, let’s respect Marius Mostert and the process,” said Nelson. “It is being dealt with as expeditiously as possible.”

September ducked questions on Telkom Media like a prizefighter, attempting to dodge the issue of who was accountable for the failed broadcasting venture.

Telkom announced its intentions to shut down Telkom Media two weeks ago, which staff estimated had cost the company near R700-million in the past few years. Nelson said there was no point in extending the pain. He promised that this kind of wasteful expenditure would not happen again.

But when pressed by a journalist about to who should be held accountable he passed the buck to the Telkom board stating that they should respond to the query.

Another question on the widely reported outsourcing strategy that Telkom was trying to implement last year before the unions got involved, it appears that it has been moved to the backburner. “Frankly it is slipping down our priority list. We’ll only outsource when we’re ready,” Nelson said.

But the new strategy, which has seen the Telkom group, divided into three business units, Telkom SA, Telkom International and Telkom Data Centre Operations, has also been met with opposition from the unions.

Communication Workers Union general secretary Gallant Roberts said the union is opposed to this restructuring. Telkom said its management had engaged fully with the unions.

September made much of the skills that newly appointed managing director of Telkom’s SA business unit, Nombulelo Moholi, will bring to the table when she joins the company at the beginning of May.

Moholi, who is an ex-Telkom staffer, said she understood the hard work that had to be done at Telkom. “The culture of trust in the organisation needs to be rebuilt,” said Moholi. “There is a lot of negativity towards management.”

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