Durban’s Cell Mast Scam

 It has taken more than a year for Durbanites – who started asking questions last August about the huge concrete poles being built all over the city – to realise that a huge scam was being perpetrated, quite literally on their doorsteps.


When concerned members of the public asked their local councilors what was going on, city spokesperson Thozi Mthethwa assured residents that they had nothing to worry about.

“These are structures to carry CCTV camera towers,” she said in a statement that was widely publicised in newspapers at the time. “This is part of Durban’s commitment to being a safe city. The cameras are extremely high-definition, and will be monitored 24/7.”

There was no mention of cell masts… after all, it is well known that before a cell mast can go up, the public need to be informed and a whole complicated process of permissions has to take place.

Head of Disaster Managment, Vincent Ngubane, attended several residents’ meetings around the city as well, when residents raised the fear that these new structures looked uncommonly like cell masts. But Vincent laughed this concern to scorn… there was no question that these were cell masts, he said.


But what Durban did, in fact, get, was a slew of cell masts across the city, fitted with MTN antennae, in defiance of city planning, real estate, roads, health and safety, and treasury. There was none of the required public participation process, and what stuns most people is just how many towers there are, and how fast they went up. And not a CCTV camera in sight.
Local community papers picked up the issue, asking in article after article how this had been allowed to happen. Questions to the city were ignored. Instead of coming clean, and admitting that some nimble footwork had been performed by city officials, the Metro went on lockdown instead, instructing staff to lie to the public, telling contractors to remove their branding from vehicles, and adhering to the fiction that these were ‘camera poles’.

At around that time, MTN’s head of technology, Giovanni Chiaperelli, went proudly on record, saying that their roll-out of hundreds of cell masts and antennae in Durban was a great success, and the rental from these masts would be of huge benefit to Durban’s fiscus.

Problem is, the money is not going to Durban’s fiscus. In fact, no-one seems to know where MTN’s rental payment is going. Even MTN themselves, when asked into which account the rentals were being paid, evaded the question.

A scribble-on-the-back-of-a-bill estimate of the revenue from the towers shows – with 100 towers of four antennae per tower, and a thumb-suck payment of R3 000 per antennae – that someone, somewhere, is receiving a monthly dividend of possibly more than R1 million a month. Nice money if you can get it.

Opposition parties in council are adamant that this deal has not gone through any committees or meetings, that treasury is not receiving this bonus, and that there is no record anywhere, at any time, of an ‘infrastructure sharing arrangement’ with MTN. The whole thing seems to be a private arrangement between Disaster Management’s Vincent Ngubane and MTN.

Deputy mayor Fawzia Peer also adhered to the assertion that these concrete towers were ‘camera poles’ and that nothing untoward was happening. She replied in an interview that the ‘camera poles’ had been built for the CCTV roll-out, and that the antennae were an afterthought. But a technical expert has shown that a cell mast and a camera pole are two very different things.

‘A camera pole is a light, short structure,” says resident Daniel Barbeau, “that should not be more than around 10 meters high – this gives a good view, and is suitable for maintenance of the camera. A cell mast, on the other hand, is a massively rigid and tall tower to prevent any movement of the antennae. Putting cameras on a cell mast does not really make sense, because it is difficult to maintain a camera that high. And whenever maintenance needs to be done, the antennae would need to be switched off. Sharing these two is really not a practical arrangement.”

Proof of this is the fact that most cell masts do not carry cameras, and in several cases a camera pole is situated right next to the cell tower.

The DA sent a list of questions to the City Manager about this whole project. The extremely detailed questions ask, broadly, just how it was possible for such a massive infrastructure project to happen in almost total secrecy. The deadline for the answers to these questions is August 7th.

Residents across Durban have gone on record in local publications, showing how masts have gone up without planning permission or a public participation process. A photograph shows the plan for a mast in Clare Road, Glenmore, with no municipal stamp. An official in the planning department said all city departments had been told to ‘back off’ when they began to ask questions. Vincent Ngubane, apparently, told them to look the other way.

All questions to MTN were referred back to Vincent Ngubane, who was, according to the cell company, the points-man for the project.

City resident Ivor Rixon, who voiced a rather vehement objection to a mast going up on the pavement outside his house, related how a Metro policeman had visited him and threatened him if he made a fuss.

Resident Andre Van Rooyen, who was extremely outspoken about his local mast (claiming it was making both him and his family sick) was raided by Metro police who confiscated his computer. The computer has not been returned. Van Rooyen has gone to court to get his property back.

Various residents’ associations are preparing court papers to sue both the city and MTN for this gross dereliction of the law. Many people across the city are complaining that the antennae – often beaming directly into people’s houses – are causing them to get various ailments. Six hundred people in Chatsworth have signed a petition, declaring that the illegal towers are making them sick.

The most outrageous part of this whole saga is how MTN and eThekwini Disaster Management expected to keep this under wraps. And there is a huge irony here…. MTN and the other service providers are adamant that cell masts do not have any health risks. But if these masts had not been making people sick (thus causing them to mobilise energetically against the towers) it is just possible that they might have got away with it.

After all, if the municipality is doing it, it must be OK, right?

Information supplied by  031durban 


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