Bharti Airtel is looking to acquire an operator in South Africa, with the market’s smallest operators Cell C and 8ta in the frame, Business Day reported.

The deal would enable the India-based international group to expand its presence in Africa, following its acquisition of a number of assets from Zain in 2010.

It also follows an aborted 2009 attempt by Airtel to acquire MTN, the second biggest operator in South Africa, which was attributed on at least one occasion to demands made by the South African government.

According to the report, fixed line incumbent Telkom South Africa said it has not been approached about the sale of 8ta, its recently-created mobile business.

It has previously identified it as being central to its plan to defend erosion of its core activities through the provision of converged services.

It was noted that with 8ta currently still in the start-up phase, it requires significant investment, potentially making Airtel a strong partner.

Independent operator Cell C is more established, in contrast, but this would also make it a more costly acquisition target.

According to Wireless Intelligence figures, the South African market is dominated by Vodacom, with 21.6 million subscribers, and MTN, which as 17.4 million.

Cell C is in third place, with 9.3 million, and 8ta in fourth with 1.3 million.

For an overview of the South African mobile market, watch this video.