Reign of vice

The Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, is setting up a structure similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where present and former staff can unburden themselves about the trauma they suffered under the vice-chancellorship of Aaron Ndlovu.

Until recently, Ndlovu was South Africa’s highest-paid vice-chancellor, earning a R3,7-million package in 2007.

But he faces 21 disciplinary charges, including abuse of university resources and bypassing policies. He was suspended in December 2008 after an investigation into the university’s governance led by Vincent Maphai, an independent assessor, who revealed that intimidation of dissenting staff and curtailment of academic freedom were common.

Ndlovu, vice-chancellor for 13 years, retires at the end of this year and his job was advertised last week.

His salary was suspended in June after a forensic audit.

The Maphai report states that Ndlovu had software illegally installed to secretly record the phone conversations of 20 staff members. Many of these staffers had cooperated with an earlier investigation into the university’s affairs and some were dismissed or quit under duress.

The report accused the university council, chaired by Durban mayor Obed Mlaba, of allowing Ndlovu to create a culture pervaded by “fear of injustice, acts of retribution and victimisation”, as well as by favouritism and promotions and appointments that did not follow procedure.

Jonathan Jansen, now the vice-chancellor of the University of Free State, acted as MUT administrator between January and July this year.

The chairperson of MUT’s new council, Jerome Ngwenya, told the Mail & Guardian the university would set up a TRC-type structure because “many harboured a lot of anger and hurt”.

The university was hiring specialists, including stress psychologists, to help former and current staff “to vent their frustrations and feelings and to move forward from the past”.

Ngwenya said the healing process would be short-term and could last 12 months. He said that when Jansen was running the campus, “he expected six to 10 people to come forward [to speak about their trauma]. Instead there were over 120 people.”

“People are exceptionally emotionally traumatised. Some can’t come back, as they are emotionally destroyed. And there are those who are still convinced that the vice-chancellor is returning.”

Ngwenya said he had heard that a staff member who had joked that he wished he could find another job was called in by Ndlovu and told to leave immediately. When the employee refused, security was apparently called to escort him off the premises.

Another staff member who took photographs of Ndlovu at his (Ndlovu’s) request was fired after the vice-chancellor apparently argued that they “were of the wrong person”.

Ndlovu is also accused of instructing university staff to work on his farm in Estcourt and getting them to claim overtime from MUT.

He also allegedly asked the council for more than R300000 to purchase a tractor for a university department, and then moved the vehicle to his farm.

The M&G has also learned that, following the Maphai report, the university is being restructured. Ngwenya said staff unions, banned in 2001, would be reintroduced. Cosatu’s affiliate, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, has an interim structure on campus. The council has been restructured, and it is understood that Mlaba has not been renominated as chair.

According to the Maphai report, the university had no audit committee or internal audit function and council members were prevented from seeing the university’s financial statements, which were signed off by the council chairperson and the chairperson of the finance committee.

The human resources department risked collapse because of the removal or resignation of senior staff, while the finance department was compromised by the hiring of students as employees.

Ngwenya said MUT now had new academic, financial and human resource policies. “We have proper procedures in place. Previously, policies came from one source — the vice-chancellor.”

Permanent staff employed since 2001 are to receive a once-off payment to correct a wrongful reduction from an approved increase in 2001. The university council had approved a 6% salary increase, but Ndlovu reduced it to 3%.

The university is also trying to fill academic staff vacancies.

“We are trying to build on our future and will overcome our serious and hard past,” said Ngwenya.

Ndlovu, meanwhile, told the M&G that he would be challenging all the charges and that the Maphai report contained “vicious and malicious allegations.

“I am going to challenge the report on the basis of defamation.”

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