Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO
Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

TELKOM CEO Sipho Maseko is still not saying why his highly rated financial director, Jacques Schindehütte, was suspended.

But his efforts to explain a decision that has reaffirmed the view of Telkom as a congenitally disaster-prone company controlled by a short-sighted, small-minded 39% shareholder with special rights, namely the government, only deepen the mystery.

One fondly imagines that no company would dismiss someone of his calibre (he impressed as the financial boss of Absa) without very good reason. Especially just weeks before a results presentation, when it needs to be on its best behaviour for investors.

And yet Mr Maseko says that when he first heard the complaint in July that signalled the beginning of the end for Mr  Schindehütte, his “initial predisposition” was to do nothing. He didn’t think an investigation was necessary.

So how serious could it have been?

“It has nothing to do with a share trade, it will not impact our financial performance, it will not result in us having to restate our numbers, it will not result in us having to enhance our control processes,” he says. “It is broadly of a personal-conduct nature.”

With the ill-fated former competition commissioner Shan Ramburuth in mind, one immediately thinks of porn.

It was “nothing of a sexual nature”, says Mr Maseko. It was not about Mr Schindehütte’s management style either.

Anything financial?

“There was no financial benefit to him, it was not fraud, not those sorts of things.”

Mr Schindehütte was known to have strongly supported and pushed for a partnership with the South Korean telecoms company, KT Corporation, as the best way forward for Telkom. He and former CEO Pinky Moholi, whom he greatly admired, were led to believe that they had the support of the government, and both felt betrayed when the government, at a fairly late hour, pulled the plug on the deal.

Ms Moholi resigned. Mr Schindehütte stayed, of course, but his unhappiness with the government was no secret.

Was that his sin? That he had angered Telkom’s most important shareholder and now it was grabbing the first available pretext to get rid of him?

“Not at all,” says Mr Maseko. “To think that is not fair and not right.”

He hadn’t made himself popular with the government, had he?

“I don’t spend my time trying to make myself popular with government either. It has got absolutely nothing to do with government.”

He denies that he was under any pressure to suspend him.

“No one can put me under pressure and no one can put (Telkom chairman) Jabu Mabuza under pressure.”

He rejects reports that he and his financial director didn’t get on very well.

“I worked very well with Jacques. I like him a lot. He was very helpful to me when I arrived.”

It has been suggested that Mr Schindehütte’s “crime” was to hire an investment relations consultant without going through the proper procedure. Mr Maseko won’t comment on this, either to deny or affirm it, suggesting that this may, indeed, be close to the truth.

Except that the appointment of the consultant was apparently cleared with Ms Moholi. And Mr Maseko has said that the complaint against him did not suggest there was a need for Telkom to tighten up its processes.

“It’s a personal-misconduct issue,” he repeats for the fourth or fifth time. “It’s a matter between him and this company, not a matter for public consumption. The entire situation is most unfortunate.”

He says the first people he told about the complaint were Mr Schindehütte and the chairman, Mr Mabuza. He did not feel an investigation was necessary “but they both insisted that I should conduct an investigation”.

An independent law firm did the investigation, and Mr Schindehütte “fully participated”.

“With his full knowledge a report came out and was considered by the board, which decided these are serious issues. And we feel, as the board, this is the right decision to take, to suspend him.”

Mr Schindehütte has been presented with a charge sheet containing “between three and five charges”, and there will now be an inquiry into those charges.

Mr Maseko cannot say how long it will take.

Bad timing? “There is never a good time for something like this,” he responds.

Certainly it is the last thing he needs when he is trying so hard to dispute “this false narrative about Telkom” that, he complains, keeps dragging it down.

A narrative that reads, “you’re big, you’re bad, you’re a relic of the past, you have too many males, unfortunately some of them are white and you’re kind of full of s*** and we hate you”.

Is he concerned that whatever counter narrative he wants to put out will be undermined, if not completely ignored, by the mess Telkom has got itself into by suspending Mr Schindehütte and then refusing to give a reason for it?

Mr Maseko is no fool at all, and of course he understands this. The decision was not taken lightly, he says.

“It’s been difficult for me, for the board, for the team. We don’t wake up in the morning and decide we’re going to do this sort of stuff.”

Mr Maseko, 45, was appointed in April this year after a long and successful career as the head of BP South Africa and a curiously short career with Vodacom. He was appointed MD of Vodacom South Africa in 2011. There was a great song and dance about how much value he was going to add to the mobile operator and how much they were looking forward to a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

Less than a year later he left.

He won’t say why. But his answers do nothing to dispel the rumour that he was unhappy about management changes that left him having to answer to Vodacom CEO Pieter Uys, who himself resigned this year.

He denies that his decision to leave was prompted by a job offer from Telkom.

He had no desire at all to join Telkom, he says. But after he left Vodacom, his old friend Mr Mabuza contacted him — “and you know Jabu can be very persuasive”.

Now that he has joined the opposition, he is not shy to stick it to his old company.

He has come out fighting against suggestions, and pressure from the regulator, that Telkom should relinquish its monopoly of the local loop which gives it control over the “last mile” infrastructure to homes.

Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and other operators can jolly well invest in their own local loops, he says.

He characterises them as a bunch of freeloaders who have grown fat enough at Telkom’s expense thanks to the “grossly unfair” termination fees it has been paying them.

As far as many observers are concerned, most of the local loop is going to waste. Telkom’s is a dog-in-the-manger, short-sighted attitude motivated by a fear of competition and the know-ledge that the likes of Vodacom would be able to exploit the local loop in ways that Telkom simply does not have the imagination, experience or intellectual capacity to do.

“With the investment I am going to put in it will be utilised,” says Mr Maseko.

“There is an assumption, which is mistaken, that I have no use for it. I do. I want to use the local loop to carry a lot of other services and offerings.”

Before his unceremonious departure, Mr Schindehütte had made it clear that he did not believe Telkom on its own would know how.

It would be absurd if his effective dismissal was in any way related.

• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times