Embattled council members at the University of Zululand (UniZulu) have hit back bitterly at Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande after he announced that an administrator would replace them.
First the council announced last Wednesday its “shock and dismay” at Nzimande’s decision. Then five ministerial appointees to the council announced on the same day that they were resigning immediately “in protest” against Nzimande’s move, saying it was “a sad day for institutional justice and the principles of good governance”.
Also that day, advocate Boyce Mkhize, deputy chairperson of the council, gave the Mail & Guardian a copy of his strongly worded letter addressed to Nzimande and expressing his “utter disappointment at the manner in which you [the minister] have elected to exercise the powers vested in you”.
Council chairperson Bheki Ntuli was unavailable to comment for personal reasons.
These developments followed a series of fast-paced moves from Nzimande himself to intervene in the controversy-ridden university. The M&G reported that the independent assessor he appointed to investigate ongoing governance turmoil had recommended the council — the supreme governing body — be dissolved immediately.
The body was undermining the university’s core academic business and some members used their positions to secure lucrative UniZulu business, the assessor reported. But new vice-chancellor Fikile Mazibuko’s management should remain in place, the assessor also recommended.
The council immediately protested against the report, saying it was wholly biased and its allegations were unsubstantiated. It also denounced Nzimande for inadequately consulting with them both on the appointment of an assessor and on the report’s substance.
Nzimande gave the council an extension, until Thursday last week, to deliver its written response to the assessor’s report. This it did, in a 21-page document the M&G has obtained.
The council wrote to Nzimande that the assessor’s report was “deeply flawed and compromised by:
- “The omission of germane information that was provided but not incorporated into the report, most importantly council’s submission to the assessor;
- “A selective and tendentious approach that strongly suggests bias;
- “Factual inaccuracies;
- “Inaccurate reporting;
- “Reporting on issues without analysis or questioning;
- “Failure to clarify and test allegations;
- “A lack of representative and comprehensive consultation; and
- “Serious flaws in the argument and conclusions.”
It urged Nzimande not to act on the report’s main recommendation that the “council must be disbanded and an administrator appointed to assume the role, functions and powers of council”.
But last Monday that is exactly what Nzimande did, announcing that University of Pretoria vice-principal Chris de Beer would assume his duties as administrator next week. This would be for a maximum of two years and “progress would be reviewed after 12 months”.
The announcement sparked the same jubilation on campus that the M&G reported two weeks ago had met the assessor’s recommendation. Now, as then, the student representative council and Nehawu, the main UniZulu union, warmly welcomed the move.
Mazibuko said she too “welcomed” Nzimande’s appointment of an administrator. “I am looking forward to working purposefully with … Professor de Beer and the university community to restore the academic excellence which is its core business,” she said.
“I thank the minister for his efforts to safeguard the future of the University of Zululand and to ensure that the students who study here receive the best possible education and qualifications.”
Mkhize’s hard-hitting letter to Nzimande recapitulates the arguments of the council’s 21-page objection to the assessor’s report and concludes: “In the interest of my own integrity, I regrettably cannot be associated with a decision of this nature [that is, the appointment of an administrator] and be a witness to a complete disregard of law and procedures.”
A ministerial appointee himself, Mkhize resigned along with Douglas Irvine, James Leatt, Lulamele Mbete and Wilfred Bhekabantu Ngubane.
Gwebs Qonde, acting director general of higher education and training, rejected the council’s criticisms of the procedures Nzimande followed in appointing an assessor.
On the minister’s consideration of the council’s 21-page objection to the assessor’s report and his appointment then of an administrator, Qonde said: “It is our view that the minister complied both with the provisions of … the Higher Education Act, as well as the principles of fair administrative justice.”