STATE-owned mobile phone operator NetOne has been rocked by a series of scandals that could have prejudiced the telecoms firm millions of dollars. Government’s plans to regulate social media have also unnerved many while the contentious issue of infrastructure sharing remains inconclusive. The Zimbabwe Independent political reporter Elias Mambo (EM) speaks to Information Communication Technology minister Supa Mandiwanzira (SM) on these and other issues affecting the telecoms industry. Below are excerpts of the interview:
EM: NetOne has been rocked by a series of scandals. What are your comments on this matter?
SM: It is public knowledge that the board discovered areas of serious concern and they have called for a forensic audit. They checked with me as their minister and I supported it because our agenda is to make sure parastatals contribute to the fiscus. So they have proceeded and contacted the Auditor-General to look for a best suited company to conduct the forensic audit. I was told last week by the Auditor-General that by end of this week they would have identified the company to do so. Everything else must wait for the forensic audit so that we ensure the Auditor-General does her work without interference.
EM: What happens if criminal activities are unearthed?
SM: If criminal activities are unearthed, then the law has to take its course.
EM: Government has acquired another mobile service provider, Telecel, when it already has NetOne. What do you seek to achieve in this acquisition?
SM: Government is running much larger companies than NetOne and Telecel which will contribute only 30% of market share. The fact that there are two operators does not make it a huge transaction. That Econet is in charge of 70% market share must reflect the size of the two operators. People must not be concerned so much because this is an insignificant transaction.
EM: Will Telecel not run into same problems being experienced at NetOne?
SM: Challenges we faced at NetOne will teach us a lesson on how to run a telecoms institution and that you do not put money in a company and go fishing. Government will make sure that the investment will be looked after. Telecel came as an opportunity in the market and we felt we should invest in this sector because the most profitable business in the world is telecoms.
EM: Last week VimpelCom issued a statement that they still own Telecel yet the National Social Security Authority (Nssa) has already paid for Telecel acquisition on behalf of Zarnet. What is going on?
SM: The fact of the matter is that Zarnet bought 60% shareholding from VimpelCom.
The purchase is not in doubt. What has not yet happened is the conclusion of that transaction as a result of impossibilities which we are trying to deal with. The transaction has been concluded to the extent of paying money to VimpelCom through their nominated lawyers in Zimbabwe. That money is sitting in Barclays Bank in an account belonging to the lawyers of VimpelCom.
So Zarnet has done its part. Barclays Bank has been having a problem of transferring that money due to non-funding of its nostro accounts internationally and Barclays then approached the ministry to facilitate discussions with the central bank and the process will be concluded in May.
EM: What is the status of the remaining 40% shareholding which is the hands of local investors?
SM: We are not aware as yet because Zarnet has not yet moved in. Yes, there has been confusion and a lot of people claim they have shares in that 40%.The Empowerment Corporation says they are legitimate owners and they have other members such as the war veterans, Zimbabwe Farmers Union, Small-scale Miners Association, Leo Mugabe also has shares, and a lot others. So government will look into the real owners of the shares, whether they paid for the shares and how much they have extracted from those shares. Actually, government wants to own 100% of the shares in Telecel. We want to ascertain how much money they deserve if there is anything to be paid for.
EM: Now let’s move on to the controversial issue of social media. Is government planning to crack down on the use of social media?
SM: Government is very much interested in promoting social media, which is a tool for development. We must protect the integrity of this tool by making sure we penalise those who abuse it. We are saying we like the use and not abuse. Those are the sentiments expressed by President Robert Mugabe when he came from Japan at the airport. He said social media is being abused as people undermine the leadership.
As a ministry, we are worried with such abuse. The way to do it is to do what other countries have done. Other countries have strengthened their laws to get rid of the abusers, for example, in revenge pornography and content not suitable for children. Abusers must face the full wrath of the law and they are criminally liable. Our constitution promotes freedom of media, but this does not include malicious injury to people’s reputations. For example, the issue of Tafadzwa Mushunje who was defamed and social media was awash with wrong allegations about her.
EM: Do you want to imitate China which has laws to control social media?
SM: What is crucial from China is that they have created a local ICT technology; they have their own version of Google, Facebook and WhatsApp. This must inspire us to develop our own technology.
We are not saying we will ban the use of social media, but we will create regulations to control abusers. We have created a fund to make sure local people can develop software that have something to do with our culture and language. This needs Zimbabweans to develop it not the Chinese.
We are only talking about regulating, but the British have called for a complete ban on social media and no noise has been made about it. We want to take the best out of China.