Jesus of the Vaal

All staff at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) were forced to buy a photograph of vice-chancellor Aubrey Mokadi, with university funds, to hang on their office walls. And all departments had to buy birthday presents for him, also with university funds, and to celebrate another occasion he created called ‘The Day of the Vice-Chancellor”.

Mokadi was especially strict about how tea was served to him: the handle had to face him so that he did not have to turn the cup. If the tea faced the wrong way, he sent it back.

These bizarre allegations form part of testimony collected by a commission of inquiry into allegations against Mokadi, who was put on compulsory leave last year.

Concluding that he is ‘autocratic, paranoid and delusional to a frightening degree for someone in his position”, the commission says copious documentation and oral evidence from more than 50 witnesses indicated he had ‘exceeded limits in his conduct in relation to abuse of power, corruption and fraud, and conduct unbecoming a vice-chancellor and rector”.

It recommends his immediate dismissal and the laying of criminal charges in respect of the alleged fraud and corruption.

Among other allegations detailed in the report are that a secretary in Mokadi’s office was transferred partly because she failed to turn the calendar in his toilet to the right month. All staff in his office were allegedly hospitalised at some stage with stress-related illnesses.

The commission remarks that Mokadi ‘seems to feel the need to liken himself to Christ”. It quotes his account of his return to the campus after a previous suspension in 1997, which said that student and staff supporters ‘stripped garments from their backs and laid them on the ground for me to walk on ... images of Christ on his triumphant entry to Jerusalem [flashed] through my mind”.

Mokadi is also alleged to have ‘forced his personal assistants (all female) to wait for him in his office until nine or 10 o’clock at night while he was reading a newspaper or watching TV, because he refused to switch off the lights of his office himself and refused to lock his own office door”.

This week the VUT council formally accepted the commission’s findings, and recommended that Mokadi be charged with misconduct and immediately suspended pending a council decision on the findings of a disciplinary tribunal. Council chairperson Nic Wiehahn said the council had intended to discuss the report at an emergency meeting on January 24, but Mokadi had applied for a court interdict to prevent it from doing so. Last week the Johannesburg High Court dismissed his application with costs.

The commission was set up in August, after Education Minister Naledi Pandor requested the council to account for governance and management problems at the university. Its 400-page report—delivered to the council in January and leaked to the Mail & Guardian—quotes from Pandor’s request: ‘I have received the appended documents from ‘Concerned Staff of Vaal University of Technology’. While I appreciate that the allegations are made anonymously, this is not the first time I have received representations alleging serious abuse of power at [VUT].”

According to the commission’s report, there was evidence that Mokadi’s abuse of his power had led to ‘the loss of valuable staff members and indeed turned the VUT into a ‘graveyard of dismissals’”.

Charges against staff were generally vague, trivial or trumped up, while settlements had incurred unnecessary costs of about R3-million.

The report says that when staff who had displeased Mokadi were not dismissed, they were ‘restructured”—a euphemism for summary transfer to another department and job, or another of VUT’s six campuses.

Mokadi ‘apparently destroyed the lives of highly competent, hard-working individuals. The commission was shocked by the destruction of these people, who wept openly from a feeling of grief and humiliation.”

The commission urges redress for ‘injustices that were blatantly caused to certain employees by unfair dismissals” by appointing a special committee of the council to review such cases.

The report also alleges Mokadi contracted services—such as security for himself and the university—without following tender procedures, and arranged that the university pay for work on two private houses belonging to him.

It details unsubstantiated credit card expenses that VUT paid—Mokadi would claim he had ‘lost” the necessary invoices—for the removal of university assets, such as furniture, to his private residence, and payment for an overseas trip for Mokadi’s children.

About R370 000 of credit card expenses had not been backed by invoices or receipts, while he overspent his budget on four overseas trips by R200 000. Work costing R500 000 was done to his office without tender procedures being followed. The report notes that in September last year, his salary was nearly R146 000 a month.

On why staffers followed Mokadi’s instructions that they knew involved irregularities, fraud or corruption, the report says witness after witness testified that ‘you never say no to him, never”. ‘If they did not follow his instructions, they would be dismissed or restructured.”

The commission noted ‘all-pervasive fear” at the institution. ‘Nobody discussed anything with anyone else because Professor Mokadi’s spies were planted everywhere.”

Mokadi was suspended on similar charges in 1997 and dismissed after a disciplinary hearing. He took his case to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, which overturned the dismissal, and he returned to VUT in 2000.

Mokadi’s response

Professor Aubrey Mokadi’s attorney, Thabo Kwinana, said Mokadi ‘insists on his innocence and denies all the allegations [in the commission’s report] and consequently the report’s findings”. In light of the disciplinary hearing the council this week decided to institute, Mokadi declined to comment on the details of the testimony recorded in the report, said Kwinana, but welcomed the opportunity to present his case to the hearing.

Mokadi had sought an interdict in January against the council discussing the report or implementing its recommendations because, when he asked the commission for details of the allegations against him, ‘these were not forthcoming”, said Kwinana. Mokadi therefore felt he could not prepare for any submission to the commission and so had not been given an opportunity to be heard.

The commission was supposed to investigate various allegations and decide which had any substance, said Kwinana. In that light, the commission ‘exceeded its powers in making recommendations such as that he be dismissed, which is more than fact-finding”.

Mokadi would also seek a legal review of the commission’s findings, ‘as they cast aspersions on his integrity as a person and his capability as a vice-chancellor”.—David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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