Fear shadows probe into UniZulu finances

A climate of fear at the University of Zululand (UniZulu), in which death threats have been made against staff who question the business interests of council members and senior executive managers, has paralysed the university, well-placed UniZulu personnel have told the Mail & Guardian.

Now the government is to investigate long-standing allegations of massive financial abuse.

Last week, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande gazetted his appointment of an independent assessor who will report to him within 30 days on “problems” that include “governance, financial management and procurement practices”.

Nzimande’s notice on Friday last week in most respects follows the standard procedure laid down by legislation for the education minister to intervene in a university’s governance. But unlike previous notices, which have involved universities of technology such as Tshwane, Vaal, Durban and Mangosuthu, the UniZulu announcement specifies apparent sites of abuse.

The independent assessor will investigate “internal audit processes, procurement and tender procedures, expenditure on legal fees, donor funding management [and] the management of NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] allocations”, the notice says.

It also specifies “the operations of the office of the registrar in relation to the management of academic affairs and certification matters”, as well as “student governance including a review of the 2009 SRC elections”.

The UniZulu situation departs from previous ministerial interventions in another way as well, in that the newly appointed vice-chancellor, Fikile Mazibuko, has welcomed Nzimande’s move.
Such intervention has previously led to, or been preceded by, the removal of the vice-chancellors concerned and usually some or all members of the council and executive management as well.

But Mazibuko told the M&G that “such an in-depth, high-level investigation as this into all aspects of university life, both administrative and academic, could only benefit the long-term health of the university”.

Applauding Nzimande’s intervention, she said it would assist her in fulfilling her mandate, which centred on restoring UniZulu’s academic project, a project. This had “taken a back seat”, she said.

Appointed in February, Mazibuko was reluctant to speak about the details of Nzimande’s notice and would not be drawn on her recent public reference to business interests that apparently benefit office-bearers to the detriment of UniZulu’s education priorities.

“The university must not be run primarily and externally as a business kit benefiting the few,” she said last month at the inauguration of the new SRC. “To transform UniZulu into an African university rather than a quasi-business” would take “courage, intellect, integrity and conviction”, she said.

Mazibuko also did not want to be drawn on personal allegations against her in the KwaZulu-Natal press recently. The isiZulu-language newspaper, Ilanga, reported in September that she used university funds to pay for a bedroom suite and that the council wanted to dismiss her. A week later, the Zululand Fever newspaper carried Mazibuko’s rebuttal, which she said the Ilanga story had not carried.

A source close to the UniZulu council told the M&G Mazibuko walked into “the greatest hostility” from powerful members of both the council and the executive management when she arrived at the university.

“The council is adversarial to the vice-chancellor because she points out members’ business interests in tendering and their non-disclosure of those interests,” the source said. “You get death threats if you talk about, for instance, the R1-million a month spent on private security or the R1-million a month on meat in UniZulu’s catering department,” the source said.

Council chairperson Bheki Ntuli, who is also chairperson of the ANC’s North Coast region, did not respond to two messages the M&G left on one of his cellphones on Thursday. His second cellphone was not taking messages.

This year is UniZulu’s 50th anniversary. Established in 1960, it has four faculties, 14 500 students and 900 academic staff.
Unusually, women comprise nearly 70% of student registrations. Nevertheless, men dominate both the council and executive management. “I’ve never worked with so many men in my life,” Mazibuko told the M&G.

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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