File photo: Reuters

Johannesburg - Despite a massive investigation of maladministration, the agency rolling out digital TV is asking its motherbody – the Department of Communications – for close to R30 billion over the next five years.

Next year alone, the Universal Service Access Agency of South Africa wants R6.9bn, or 23 times the R289 million it received this year.

The money, it says, will be used to roll out its broadband infrastructure, internet connectivity and the digital television projects.

The figures are contained in a strategic plan of the Universal Service Access Fund, which is expected to be submitted to Communications Minister Yunus Carrim for approval in the next few weeks.

The request comes just two weeks after President Jacob Zuma proclaimed a Special Investigating Unit probe of the agency.

The unit will look into allegations of maladministration, improper conduct and unlawful appropriation of funds as well as the recruitment of the chief executive officer, Zami Nkosi.

The latest strategic plan was signed off by Nkosi, the chairwoman of the board Phumla Radebe and Makhotso Moiloa, executive manager for performance management and strategy.

According to the document, the budget for the digital TV project this year is R240m. Next year it doubles to R550m.

And although the switch from analogue to digital TV has an international deadline of December next year, according to the strategic plan the agency wants another R664m in 2016, R704m in 2017 and R746m in 2018.

Moiloa said she was not able to explain the escalated figures in 2016, 2017 and 2018 as the project was supposed to come to an end next year.

Commenting on the funding request in the middle of the investigation, Nkosi said: “The fact that there is an investigation does not mean that work or progress must stop.”

Aside from the digital TV project, the budget to create broadband infrastructure for this year is R32.5m.

But the most exorbitant is its request for rehabilitation and connectivity in communities and schools.

The budget for this given to the agency this year is R14m. However, it is asking the government for R5.6bn next year, a further R5.9bn in 2016, R6.3bn in 2017 and R6.6bn in 2018.

Moiloa said the escalation of the costs was based on a business turn-around strategy in the form of the National Strategy on Universal Service and Access.

The agency, said Moiloa, had done access gap analysis and a costing exercise, which found that broadband had not penetrated the rural areas of South Africa.

The costs were related to rolling out a framework in the rural areas.

In a letter from the agency’s chairperson attached to the document, Radebe alludes to the “steep investment” required to close the ICT access gaps.

“This is an investment likely to yield in excess of 500 000 direct and indirect jobs and result in a more than 2% GDP growth rate,” she said.

On Saturday Communications Department spokesman Siya Qoza said the department had not yet received any request from the agency in terms of SA Connect – the country’s broadband policy and strategy adopted by the cabinet last December.

He said the agency’s previous request for funding had not been approved by the Treasury. It predated the adoption of “SA Connect”.

The latest funding request comes amid a power battle between the agency and the Department of Communications over the control of the digital TV subsidy.

Last month The Sunday Independent reported that the agency had approached the Treasury to ensure that it, rather than the department, got ultimate control over the money for the digital migration project.

In the latest spat between the two, the agency this week issued a scathing statement hitting back at the department’s criticism of it, saying the “cloud peddled in the media was a deliberate and unfortunate creation in the quest for control over the organisation’s existing and future funds”.

Last week, Carrim told The Sunday Independent that “it would be preferable if there was no cloud of controversy over” the agency but the “relevant policies and laws must shape the respective roles of the parties”.

He had consulted with lawyers and was informed that he could not place any officials at the agency on special leave while the SIU investigated.

But this week, the agency said: “The agency is grappling with the possibility that all these smoke screen investigations are directly linked to the (digital TV) project and the transparent fund distribution processes put in place by it.

“It is beginning to be clear to the board that there are those who are hell bent on creating ‘cloud of controversy over Usaasa’ with a hope that this and other projects such as broadband will be taken away from the agency and other structures.”

Sunday Independent