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JOHANNESBURG - Durban residents have asked MTN CEO Rob Shuter to come to a community meeting in their city in March, to explain how the cellular company managed to put up 123 masts on municipal land in Durban.

Residents say MTN has done this without complying with any of the city’s land-use or spatial planning regulations or by-laws.

It appears that the telecomms company had been given an unfair (and illegal) advantage over its rival operators.

The issue began towards the end of 2016, when residents began seeing massive concrete masts being erected in parks and on traffic islands across the city. The city spokesman, in reply to queries from ward councilors and residents at the time, explained that these were ‘camera towers’, being erected for CCTV anti-crime cameras. However, it turned out that the concrete towers were actually cellular masts, purpose-built by MTN to house their infrastructure roll-out in Durban.

MTN spokesperson Bridget Bhengu explained that MTN was not required to abide by planning regulations, development guidelines, or city bylaws as a result of a special ‘infastructure-sharing’ arrangement with eThekwini head of Disaster Management Vincent Ngubane.

This has turned out to be false, as there is no record of any such decision or permission, and lease agreements state quite emphatically that MTN is required to abide by the law.

Now Durban residents want answers from MTN and the city.

A community meeting has been called in Durban next week, and MTN officials have been requested to explain their ‘special deal’ with the city.

“People are furious about MTN’s underhand dealing,” said Durban Anti-Cellmast Alliance spokesman Niki Moore. “All these masts suddenly started popping up in Durban in 2016, and when residents raised concerns they were deliberately mislead.

We now have documents that prove that MTN has behaved dishonestly and unethically, and we are quite puzzled why the city has not taken action against them. It is inconceivable that a private company can undertake a massive infrastructure project in a city, without obeying any by-laws or regulations, and then announce that they have been excused any compliance because of a private and secret agreement with an individual council employee, apparently acting in his personal capacity. How can such a deal not be corrupt?”

While the Durban Anti-Cellmast Alliance is not opposed to cellular infrastructure and the provision of IT services, these must be done in accordance with the law.

“The biggest problem with these illegal masts,” says Moore, “is that the secret deal has allowed MTN to put up masts in completely inappropriate places. It seems that the city simply told MTN where to put them, without any planning or scoping.

Of course the residents of Durban were never given any opportunity to object, as the public participation process was not followed. Residents were simply presented with a fait accompli.” she said.

MTN is facing numerous challenges to their illegal roll-out of masts in Durban. Thousands of residents are claiming that the inappropriately-placed masts are making them sick. Several court challenges are under way. The Metro has claimed to be investigating the lease agreements, declaring that they are ‘full of discrepancies’.

Vincent Ngubane, who is alleged to have given MTN permission to circumvent the law, is currently under investigation for R50 million of fraud, corruption and mismanagement, dating back to 2015. The city refused to comment on the status of the investigation.

MTN has a long list of transgressions and legal challenges to its operations in Africa and the Middle East, including fines and penalties in Nigeria, Kenya, Iran, Liberia, Cameroon, Benin, Uganda and Turkey. Durban Metro is also bedevilled with a long list of corruption scandals, exposed by local newspapers, none of which are ever investigated.

“If you look at the number of disputes, court cases, fines, penalties and irregularities that follow MTN where-ever they do business, it is difficult to avoid the impression that MTN has built corruption into their business plan,” says Moore. “This is yet another in their long list of dodgy deals.”