THE resignation of Vodacom SA MD Sipho Maseko last week has caught SA's biggest cellular network operator and industry observers by surprise.

"We did try and convince him to stay on. But he was determined that he had better prospects elsewhere, but he did not disclose them to us," Vodacom head of corporate affairs Maya Makanjee said yesterday.

Mr Maseko joined Vodacom as MD for SA in September last year after a 14-year career at oil and gas firm BP SA that culminated in his becoming its country CEO.

When appointed to Vodacom, group MD Pieter Uys lauded Mr Maseko. "Sipho has impressed us with his business acumen, leadership approach and track record in a multinational environment. We believe he will make a refreshing contribution to our business and we look forward to welcoming him on board," Mr Uys said at the time.

Mr Maseko's role changed when Vodacom implemented its new management structure, making him both MD of South African operations and also group chief operating officer, and effectively Mr Uys's shadow.

"The relationship between a group CEO and chief operating officer can be very difficult as the two positions often overlap and this could cause a lot of strife," former Telkom CEO Papi Molotsane said at the weekend. Mr Molotsane quit Telkom in 2007 after only 18 months as its CEO, being replaced by its then chief operating officer, Ruben September, who immediately eliminated the position.

"If the overlap leads to confusion, then there is a problem, and this will mean that one of the two (either CEO or chief operating officer) has to go," he said.

Mr Molotsane said Mr Maseko's resignation probably had more to do with a better opportunity elsewhere.

Telecom's regulatory lawyer Dominic Cull said newcomers to the sector often had a tough time trying to adapt.

Meanwhile, cellular network operators MTN and Vodacom are increasingly concerned that millions of rand they paid in sponsorship fees for the ICT Indaba, hosted by the Department of Communications earlier this month, may have been misused.

The Sunday Times yesterday reported that Phosane Mngqibisa, CEO of brand company Khemano Investment Holdings - who was allegedly romantically linked to Communications Minister Dina Pule, and who was also subcontracted to indaba organiser Carol Bouwer Productions - had withdrawn the fees.

"We believe that we received the deliverables that we paid for," Vodacom spokesman Richard Boorman said yesterday.

"However, we are still awaiting the audit report from Carol Bouwer Productions, and with these questions now being asked we are keen to receive it sooner rather than later."

vecchiattop@bdfm.co.za