Ayanda Mdluli and Asha Speckman
Minister of Communications Dina Pule has for the first time acknowledged that she had not asked the right questions during the process leading up to the staging of the country’s inaugural Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Indaba in June.
In an interview with Business Report, she disclosed that Auditor-General Terence Nombembe had completed his investigation into the controversy surrounding the staging of the event.
According to Pule, Nombembe’s report will be made public very soon, and it will show that “all was good”.
The auditor-general was asked by Pule to investigate how R10.5 million provided by her department for the event had been used.
The ICT Indaba attracted ministers and other delegates from across the globe and was billed as a forum to discuss how South Africa can bridge the digital divide and unlock opportunities that technology presents. Figures from the organisers show that the ICT Indaba garnered some R34 million in sponsorships from major ICT companies, including the country’s two leading cellphone operators.
Even though the event was billed as a success, it was quickly followed by controversy over how government and private monies were spent, prompting calls for a probe.
“He (the auditor-general) has done his part. It’s finished. The report is going to be made public very soon. I just need to take it to the president and the cabinet,” Pule said, adding that: “The auditor-general has checked, he has his report and I am told all is well.”
There had been calls from the DA for Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to also investigate issues around the ICT Indaba, but her office had yet to say if she had taken up the matter. Besides questions around how money was spent, there have also been allegations of conflict of interest.
Pule dismissed the claims that have been levelled against her as a smear campaign, saying: “What I have tried to do up until now, is to try focus on doing my work and leave these distractions. I have chosen that I will leave people to go and swim in the mud, I will concentrate on doing my work.”
Pule, who became communications minister in October last year, said plans for the ITC Indaba had begun as far back as 2010, when business woman Carol Bouwer approached the department with the idea of hosting a technology extravaganza. Pule said when she took over as the minister she had discovered gaps in the planning for the event, leading her to solicit input from the International Telecommunication Union and other stakeholders.
While she remains adamant about the significance of hosting the ICT Indaba, she regretted not having asked questions about the mechanics of hosting the event.
“It would have seemed very odd if I had to come in and start questioning everything that officials are saying… which is one of the regrets that I have. I think probably I should have asked questions and asked questions,” Pule said.
“But also it would have been very odd for me to start asking, why do you bring Carol Bouwer. It was almost going to be like, why would you question these things minister when it was a decision taken by your predecessors. It would have meant I am now questioning my own comrades.”
Pule said she could not tell Bouwer, who had helped the department stage the event, how to implement an agreement that Bouwer had struck with her predecessors.
Last month, Armiston Watson, an MP and chief whip of the opposition DA, requested that the Ethics and Members’ Interest Committee investigate among other issues, Pule’s relationship with Phosane Mngqibisa and whether the minister had instructed Bouwer to include him and/or his company Khemano in the organisation and management of the ICT Indaba and under what conditions.
Watson contended that the minister’s request that the auditor-general investigate was narrow in focus and did not consider the conflict of interest issue regarding Mngqibisa and the potential abuse of sponsorship money provided by companies directly regulated by Pule’s department.
Even so, Pule said she had even requested that an audit firm be hired to investigate the trail of whatever funds that Bouwer’s firm received from the sponsors.
“I even said to the sponsors if you really want to check where money has been, you also have the right to do so. It’s their money,” she said.