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Dancing on the grave of Sentech’s departing CEO

De Wet is the deputy editor of The Daily Maverick. Not having the imagination to even try anything other than journalism (or any medium other than words), he has spent all his adult life writing about what everybody else is doing. He has written about technology and telecommunications, business, politics, the property market, unusual medical conditions and, for a brief interlude, movies. He has participated in the closing-down of one daily newspaper and two magazines, but implausibly claims that none of it was his fault.

Sebiletso Mokone-Matabane, the long-time CEO of the state-owned signal distribution company, suddenly quit her job this week. That leaves Sentech without a leader at a crucial time in its history. Which is still better than having a leader who has time and again proven herself utterly incapable and, arguably, the single worst corporate leader ever to steer a parastatal.

Sentech, once upon a time the department of the SABC that built and maintained the broadcast towers for the state broadcaster, has always done one thing well: distributing terrestrial signals. Its coverage across South Africa is excellent, the uptime for the broadcast of television and radio stations is well above what you could expect from the best in the world, and it even has a bit of innovative flair going for it.

If you’re in Johannesburg, for example, watch the station identification your radio displays when you listen to Jacaranda FM or Highveld Stereo. Sentech and those radio stations are currently experimenting with including the song title and artist into the data stream, which is a little more complicated than it sounds.

Outside that core competency, every single other thing Sentech has ever attempted has either been an unmitigated disaster, or a barely-mitigated disaster. While Mokone-Matabane, despite an unbroken performance record that would have given any other shareholder a seizure, apparently enjoyed the protection of former communications minister, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri.

Did you know, for example, that DStv has for many years had a competitor in satellite broadcasting in South Africa? And that it’s free? It is called Vivid, and once you have the hardware and the smart card required, there is no monthly fee. Because it is a Sentech initiative, the number of subscribers are counted by the thousand, and almost all of those are faithful members of Christian churches who use the channel purely to access religious programming.

Sentech was also the first alternative data provider to Telkom. It launched, at great expense and with considerable fanfare, a wireless data service very similar to that now available from Neotel or iBurst. It was an utter failure.

In both cases Sentech was given a legislative duopoly on these services with the express purpose of turning into a money-printing machine that could be privatised at a profit. In both cases its failure to exploit those golden opportunities delayed the introduction of real, privately owned competition.

Over the years, the communications industry watched with growing disbelief as the government kept pumping increasing amounts of money into Sentech for these and other projects, such as the attempt to turn it into a competitor to Telkom: the idea was to offer international phone calls, first to consumers directly and later just to operators like MTN and Vodacom.

So when Business Day reported that Mokone-Matabane was essentially already out of the door, there wasn’t exactly a gnashing of teeth. Nor was her departure unexpected. The writing was on the wall as soon as the Zuma administration’s communications minister, Siphiwe Nyanda, initiated a major overview of the parastatal which, in February, reported a grim situation. However, she was expected to stick around until the end of September when her contract was due to expire.

After so many years of mismanagement and abject failure, it is unlikely anybody could turn Sentech around in months, or even years. But like any other company, housecleaning has to start at the top. So goodbye and good riddance, Sebiletso Mokone-Matabane. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.


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