March 24th, 2010
09:48 AM GMT
MTN bills itself as Africa's biggest cell phone operator. Either way, when you walk into the company's headquarters in Johannesburg they reek of success. The buildings are relatively new and have that expensive architectural look that allows for streams of natural light and other clever design tricks, which make you feel like you are in a contemporary art museum. Even the escalators and elevators look like art installations.
The reason I notice this is that many corporate headquarters are based, of course, in office blocks. No matter how plush the carpets, the environment still smacks of a charmless, gray place that makes me want to run screaming out of the swinging doors. So it makes a nice change to turn up for an interview and spend some of the pre-interview time admiring the company's interior design - there were cool chairs and fabulous art (a stunning Cecil Skotnes hung outside the ladies bathroom entrance.)
The CNN crew was treated to a generous lunch and the MTN staff couldn't have been friendlier or more helpful. I was looking forward to meeting Phuthuma Nhleko, the CEO who has been at the helm of one of Africa's corporate successes for eight years. He steps down next year after a tenure that has seen some spectacular growth in the telecoms market. Nhleko and his team have taken full advantage of these opportunities, particularly in emerging markets. The group has operations in 21 countries across Africa and the Middle East, where they are in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran.
Nhleko was, however, not that delighted to meet us. Perhaps it was because he had done more than twenty interviews that day to publicize MTN's annual results, or perhaps it was because I asked him questions that he didn't want to answer. Either way, Nhleko made it clear he was unhappy to be asked about aspects of MTN's presence in Iran, where it had "recorded a strong subscriber growth of 45 percent to 23.3 million in 2009, increasing its market share to 40 percent," according to the company's annual results media release.
Now, that is a sizable share of the Iran mobile phone industry, so I asked him, with the anti-government protests last year, if the Iranian government asked MTN to monitor phone calls or to turn off the network. Remember, during the political turmoil after the 2009 disputed elections, there was global condemnation at the government's decision to limit internet access and filter content.
Also, of course, since the protests were largely communicated to the outside world via text messages and social networking sites like Twitter, they were recorded with cell phone cameras and emails were often sent via mobile phones.
So what was it like, literally, being the messenger in such a tense political environment?
Mr Nhleko said MTN "were not asked" to monitor and intercept SMSs, for example, and that the company complied with the Iranian license regulations. He did concede that "every country has got interception requirements for security."
Fair enough. But what about the moral angle? With South Africa's history, and the emphasis on freedom of speech and access to information, I asked him if he was uncomfortable having to work within the parameters of the Iranian regulations.
In a forceful but erudite manner he batted away my question, saying repeatedly that he thinks the company's role is to be a service provider and "not to make political commentary on any particular country."
He answered his questions with that steely self-confidence of a top-tier CEO who seems irritated with the nagging questions of a journalist, who kept on badgering him for an answer. I left wondering if perhaps he could have given our global audience - many of whom are MTN customers - a little more insight into how an industry-leading company does business in a geopolitical hotspot. Whether he likes it or not, politics and business might not mix but they are inextricably linked.
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