MTN faces court challenge over mast roll-out

By Duncan McLeod

An organisation calling itself the Durban Anti-Cell Mast Alliance (Dacma) on Friday filed papers at the high court in Durban to stop MTN South Africa from rolling out new towers in the coastal city, it said.

Dacma, which was founded in 2017 to “protest the illegal roll-out of MTN cell masts across Durban”, said in a statement on Monday morning that it lodged papers with the court asking for “a review of the ‘secret deal’ that MTN concluded with the eThekwini municipality” in April 2016. TechCentral has seen the court papers.

The alliance alleged that eThekwini head of disaster management Vincent Ngubane “absolved MTN from any regulatory processes” when it erected new infrastructure in the city.

It has accused MTN and the municipality of “disregarding” by-laws and town planning schemes, and of contravening national legislation” and health and safety guidelines.

“Despite numerous newspaper reports, community activism, council questions, applications via the Promotion of Access to Information Act, legal correspondence and public meetings, neither eThekwini municipality nor MTN have done anything to explain how this situation came about, or whether they intend to rectify it.

“We have been forced to go to court because both MTN and the eThekwini municipality have consistently lied about this secret arrangement,” said Dacma spokeswoman Niki Moore in the statement.

“This infrastructure roll-out was completely unprocedural and secret, with the result that MTN put up cell masts, hundreds of them, next to creches, schools, old age homes, on people’s pavements, in play parks, and right outside their homes — with absolutely no consultation, no site planning, no permissions, no scoping and no public process. Anyone who complained was threatened and intimidated,” Moore alleged.

“The research we have done has shown that this roll-out was completely unnecessary, as none of these masts increased cellular connectivity in areas where it was actually required. MTN has done the cellular telephone industry no favours: by proceeding illegally and unprocedurally, they have raised huge concerns about their industry in the minds of the public. Now people are really talking about cell masts, and the effects they are having on property prices, the environment and people’s health.”

‘Better ways’

Dacma said in the statement that is “not against” the roll-out of communications technology but “believes there are better ways to go about it”. It also warned about the health impact of “long-term high-frequency microwaves”.

“The cell companies hide behind the fact that they abide by so-called ‘international limits’,” said Moore, “but they suppress the fact that these limits have been unchanged since 1998, are based on discredited science, and do not consider the massive changes in technology in the last 10 years.

“It is nonsense that municipalities, who make money out of cell mast rental, can dismiss any community concerns about the unverified effects of cell masts from the people who are forced to live right next to them. We are hoping that this court case will make both municipalities and mobile telephone companies stop and think about their reckless actions.”

In response to a query from TechCentral, MTN South Africa spokeswoman Jacqui O’Sullivan said that in February 2018, the eThekwini municipality defined the “ex post facto process” (retrospective action) that MTN and other mobile operators making use of “camera poles” would be required to follow related to 63 poles.

“We immediately began preparing to meet these requirements and have made significant progress since then,” she said.

“A total of 63 applications for environmental impact assessments on the sites were submitted in March (with 25 received to date); together with 63 applications for approval from the Civil Aviation Authority (six have been received to date). In addition, we submitted 40 land-use special consent applications on 3 August and are awaiting responses to these. We remain committed to this process.”

O’Sullivan said MTN entered a public/private partnership with the municipality through the Disaster Management and Emergency Control Unit ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Years later, this partnership was shown to be misaligned with another regulation of the department within the municipality (the Land Use Management Unit) in terms of the municipal approval processes. “All these sites must be compliant: compliance matters and our communities matter,” she said.

“It is clear that a lack of alignment must be resolved and MTN, along with all the mobile network operators that are currently using these camera poles for their masts must be held to the same standards. They, too, must follow due process.”

MTN, she added, will be “entirely guided” by the municipal process. “We want to do our best to continue offering the people of eThekwini the high-speed and wide-scale coverage we have been able to offer them. However, we will also not stand for anything other than compliance. We will do our best to try and meet both sets of expectations.”  — (c) 2018 NewsCentral Media

MTN faces court challenge over mast roll-out


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